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Menace, Anyone?

As the summer movie season gets under way, there's that "Star Wars" prequel -- and then there's everything else. Here's how the studios will fare against the "Phantom" juggernaut.

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It's cold in Hollywood. No one can remember a May when the daytime temperature was only 57 degrees. And no one can recall the start of a summer when only one movie mattered. Okay, it may be only a mediocre movie, but to skip it is to miss the shared experience of the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup, and the World Series combined. Because so many studios counterprogrammed The Phantom Menace, or steered clear of it altogether, summer ticket sales -- which usually account for 40 percent of the industry's annual revenue -- will total far less this year. This means a run on Maalox when many more studios' bottom lines will be handcuffed to the performance of their Christmas slates. Here's how the summer is shaping up, by studio.

20TH CENTURY FOX

While Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (May 19) is guaranteed to be a huge hit, it will have no effect on Fox's earnings. Why? Because in exchange for the privilege of claiming George Lucas's opus as its summer blockbuster, Fox receives only a reduced distribution fee of less than 10 percent. Even under these draconian terms, there isn't another studio that wouldn't have made the same lousy deal just for the bragging rights. Phantom, which is opening on Wednesday, could do $125 million in its first five-day weekend, with some theaters planning to run it all night and an expected 2.5 million cultists skipping work to see it first. The question is: Will Phantom have the legs to do more business than Titanic? (Answer: Yep.)

As for the rest of Fox's slate, who cares? Fox Searchlight's A Midsummer Night's Dream (running) is a delightful effort, but it won't make a dime. Fox 2000's Brad Pitt-Ed Norton vehicle The Fight Club (August 6) -- two guys exploring their own vilest impulses through underground bare-fisted brutal fights in bars -- has already earned the reputation as this summer's most reprehensible movie.

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS

You read it here first: universal will have an astonishingly good summer, welcome news to Edgar Bronfman Jr., who just had the miserable task of posting March-quarter losses of $100 million. Things have already begun on a lively note with The Mummy (running) -- a great trailer but a stiff of a picture. Just as The Mummy goes into rigor mortis, Universal will release Notting Hill (May 28), a clever romantic comedy whose humongous success will mean Tom Cruise-like paychecks for Julia Roberts. (On the other hand, co-star Hugh Grant's price won't budge. It's not his movie.) Slick and sassy, this will be the season's first non-Star Wars flick to fetch $100 million, and it should certainly ring up $150 million by the fall.

Conventional wisdom suggests that teenage boys will turn the no-star American Pie (July 9) into this summer's sleeper hit. Its onanistic trailer is getting the biggest laughs in theaters amid inevitable comparisons to There's Something About Mary. No one expects anything from the Steve Martin-Eddie Murphy flick Bowfinger (July 30). But Universal could do business with Mystery Men (August 6) if Janeane Garofalo and William H. Macy as wacky superheroes ("the Bowler" and "the Shoveler," respectively) is the irresistible hoot people think it will be.

SONY

All of Sony's hopes are pinned on Adam Sandler, whose shoulders are just broad enough to carry the studio after the stunning success of Disney's The Waterboy. No one's denying Big Daddy's (June 25) moneymaking potential, especially since Sony hired the comic for the bargain-basement price of $8 million (he's now in the $20-million club). But many have their doubts about pairing Sandler with a kid. Sounds a little too heartwarming, even if the poster does depict Sandler peeing against a wall, with the copy NATURE CALLED. GUESS WHO ANSWERED? As usual, Sony can't win for losing: The latest word is that this advertisement has been banned from New York City's subways and Santa Monica's beaches.

I love anything Muppet, so I'm convinced that this summer's Muppets From Space (July 14) will be a modest hit. (Hint: Gonzo is from another planet.) But the rest of Sony's slate is scorched earth, financially. Unfortunately, Sony is throwing away the classy John Sayles film Limbo (June 4), which should have been released in the fall with the rest of the adult fare. Sony is high on Dick (August 4), which is Clueless meets All the President's Men when two teenage girls stumble into Watergate.

PARAMOUNT

Year in and year out, Paramount shows the other studios how to do it. This will be a solid summer on Melrose Place, maybe even a superlative one, given studio vice-chairman Robb Friedman's prowess for marketing movies as long as they have stars. My pet theory is that John Travolta's pictures do well only when he plays a wiseass, not a lardass. In The General's Daughter (June 18), Travolta is at his coolest, and this movie, based on a bestseller, with twists and turns aplenty -- not to mention James Woods, chewing up the scenery as usual -- will pique moviegoers' interest. But blockbuster? Unlikely.

It's been a long time between hits for director Garry Marshall, and an even longer time since he teamed up with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere for Pretty Woman, but Runaway Bride (July 30) has all the surety of a faux sequel -- unless there isn't room for two Julias in one summer. "This is a case of two studios' not blinking," complained one executive. "Somebody should have moved their Julia out of the way." As for South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (June 30), I wish those dirty-mouthed little schoolkids would fall on their two-dimensional faces. No such luck. But the R rating could be problematic for the target audience (Beavis and Butt-head was PG-13).

WARNER BROS.

The conventional wisdom is that this could be Warner's greatest summer since the Batman series. Or its worst. Confused? So is Hollywood, especially because of the reshoots needed for Bob Daly and Terry Semel's high-cost, high-stakes action-adventure contender Wild Wild West (July 2). Still, you'd have to be nuts to count out both Will Smith and Barry Sonnenfeld, who together saved Sony's balance sheet in 1997 with Men in Black. On the other hand, there's the problem of West's Titanic-like budget, reportedly $200 million and climbing (Warner claims it's only 10 percent over budget).

Eyes Wide Shut (July 16) looks to be a much better prospect for profit now that its R rating is assured. Tom Cruise, even when paired with his wife (remember the Far and Away fiasco?), is the world's most bankable star, and the Stanley Kubrick factor adds the necessary class to what is essentially soft-porn artiness. The rumor is that, since Kubrick's death, not one but two famous directors have been overseeing final touches. But it's the summer's ultimate water-cooler picture, and for that fact alone, Eyes Wide Shut will rake in major money, perhaps as much as $100 million.

As for Warner's other fare, Renny Harlin's Jaws-wannabe Deep Blue Sea (July 30) is rumored to have FX problems, "but it's hard not to bet on a shark," as one exhibtor puts it. Back-to-back Hugh Grant movies (Warner has Mickey Blue Eyes on August 13) are deemed one too many. Unfortunately, the studio's performance is crucial to the futures of Daly and Semel, who hope to continue in their status as the two highest-paid movie executives in Hollywood (they earn way more than their boss, Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin). In the midst of arduous contract negotiations, the pair reputedly has been making nice with notorious tightwad Ted Turner, who cares only about results.

NEW LINE CINEMA

Mike myers on the cover of Time -- 'nuff said. This is without doubt the second-most-anticipated movie of the summer, and perhaps the second-most profitable, as New Line finally moves up from Siberia to the power dais thanks to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (June 11). Look for one of those rare phenomena when the sequel takes in more than the original. Even better: No. 2 cost only $30 million. But until chairman Bob Shaye can muster more than one megahit every couple of years, he'd better forget about his plans to direct. Yes, direct.

DISNEY

My rule of thumb with Disney animation is that it succeeds best when furry critters are in the picture. Tarzan (June 18) meets that criterion and is a wonderful movie besides, according to exhibitors. But the animation market is overcrowded (Fox, DreamWorks, Warner Bros.) and overexploited. The audience for animated films is growing alarmingly younger, since boys weaned on Bart Simpson would rather watch Adam Sandler play the idiot waif or Jim Carrey talk out of his butt. At least the live-action Inspector Gadget (July 23) has some of the requisite 'tude.

There's no usual Jerry Bruckheimer blow-up-everything-in-sight popcorn thriller (understandable, after Eisner went ballistic last year when Armageddon's budget went north). Too bad Instinct (June 4) doesn't deliver, despite the promise of Anthony Hopkins as another nutcase. The word of mouth on Spike Lee's Summer of Sam (about New York City in the midst of David Berkowitz-induced madness; July 2) may be fantastic (and brutal -- it's flirting with an NC-17), but it's too small a movie to pull Disney out of its doldrums.

DREAMWORKS SKG

Unfortunately for Dreamworks investors, Steven Spielberg passed on the summer. Instead, there's Spielberg Lite: The Haunting (July 23), an old-fashioned horror film by Twister and Speed helmsman Jan De Bont. Filled with wow-'em special effects and the same new Dolby Digital Surround EX sound system also used on Phantom Menace, it should satisfy teens and adults alike and could ring up big numbers. As for the prospects for The Love Letter (May 21), only three letters are needed to describe its box office potential, exhibitors tell me: DOA.

MGM

Last year, MGM was toast, so burned that it didn't even qualify as a contender. This year is not much better. Forget, for a moment, that studio owner Kirk Kerkorian just fired chairman Frank Mancuso Jr. Now the head of MGM's casino business is running the studio. MGM's summer-movie hopes are misplaced on The Thomas Crown Affair (August 11). "Any sequel made 30 years later is questionable," one marketing executive rued. Yes, it was a wonderful movie when it starred Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway at the apexes of their careers. But I wouldn't sit through B-listers Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo on Showtime. And the wooden Cher is horribly miscast in Franco Zeffirelli's Tea With Mussolini (running).

MIRAMAX/DIMENSION

Hollywood has shredded the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg now that teen slasher flicks like Teaching Mrs. Tingle (August 13) are too ubiquitous, even if this one has Helen Mirren. And while having the creator of Dawson's Creek and the Scream movies make his directorial debut could be an event of high camp, that fact is probably lost on this movie genre's slack-jawed audience. On the other hand, the de rigueur costume dramedy An Ideal Husband (June 18) is said to be lacking in both charm and star power. True, the Weinstein brothers save their biggest contenders for autumn. But the question remains: If Bob's Dimension Films stops making megaprofits in August, can Harvey's Miramax still market Oscar winners in December?


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