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The Boys of Summer

Who really won this summer's box-office sweepstakes? Was it the studio with the testosterone-fueled action hits or the little romantic comedy with a friend in high places?

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Family Man: Tom Hanks and Tyler Hoechlin star in Road to Perdition.   

Sony pictures, with its $1 billion super-slate -- Spider-Man, XXX, Men in Black II, and Mr. Deeds -- won big this summer. But in Hollywood, box-office numbers always look better than they are. Price inflation boosted summer ticket sales 10 percent over last year, but actual admissions were down. And studios are also banking less of the take. Sony had to shell out $700 million to produce and market its $1 billion–plus summer bonanza; and Twentieth Century Fox, despite coming in a respectable second in summer market share, will earn only about $35 million from its Star Wars hit, Attack of the Clones, because franchise owner George Lucas keeps the rest. With Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, which grossed $130 million, Fox and its partner DreamWorks may only break even, because the director and star Tom Cruise pocket a combined 35 percent of the gross.

Viewed from this angle, the season's big winner is Tom Hanks -- not just because he collects 20 percent of Road to Perdition's back-end gross but for producing, with his wife, Rita Wilson, the $5 million indie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The IFC film is expected to surpass $100 million, an amazing achievement for a sleeper that opened in only eight cities last April. "They did it the old-fashioned way, with word of mouth," says Disney chairman Richard Cook. "You don't have to be in 3,000 theaters."

The major studios weren't taking any chances, and that may have been part of the problem. Once again, they relied on easy-sell brands: eight sequels, six TV or movie remakes, and six film versions of established books or comics, plus a rash of dumb-and-dumber comedies and kid pix. A smart horror movie like Signs stood out for sheer originality and was rewarded accordingly. For the most part, testosterone fueled the breakouts, from Vin Diesel's XXX to Mike Myers's horny Austin Powers in Goldmember. "It was a very male summer," says DreamWorks marketing executive Terry Press. Even Scooby-Doo and MIB2's Frank the Pug had visible balls.

The top performers, though, wisely tempered their action with a little romance -- Spider-Man's Toby Maguire kissed Kirsten Dunst upside down in the rain, and Hayden Christensen morphed from surly intergalactic fighter to lovelorn swain in Attack of the Clones -- a fact that raises an obvious question: Where were the real romantic comedies? The likely sources didn't deliver this summer. Sandra Bullock's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, J.Lo's Enough, and Julia Roberts's Full Frontal were neither romantic nor funny, leaving the field wide open for a Cinderella romance like My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Studios also worked the family terrain heavily, perhaps too heavily. E-ticket pictures like Spider-Man, MIB2, Attack of the Clones, and Austin Powers siphoned off the PG audience, so the earlier kiddie releases tended to do better. Despite lousy reviews, Warner Bros.' Scooby-Doo coasted on focused MTV marketing and a two-generation Cartoon Network fan base. And Disney recovered its footing in animation with the edgy Lilo & Stitch, which grossed twice as much as DreamWorks' gorgeous but earnest Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. By July, however, the youngsters were staying away from The Country Bears, Hey Arnold! The Movie, and The Powerpuff Girls. "Parents said, 'I've seen enough movies for my kids I don't like,' " says Paramount vice-chairman Rob Friedman. Even the well-reviewed Spy Kids 2 earned $33 million less than the original.

Oversaturation is always a risk -- and even Sony, in its zeal to break its 1997 $1.26 billion record, released one summer movie too many. Stuart Little 2 cost $120 million but is likely to gross little more than half that. Either the second installment should have taken the less costly straight-to-video route, or Sony should have waited for Christmas, when the original fared better.

Talking mice nothwithstanding, the key to survival remains vigorous franchises -- and it's not enough to own a few; you have to keep launching new ones. "It's all about who will get their next sequel," says DreamWorks' Press. And this year, Columbia Pictures chairman Amy Pascal made the winning call with Spider-Man. Now Sony, which owns Columbia, has two spanking-new franchises (it also released XXX, produced by Joe Roth's Revolution Studios) to take up the slack as Stuart Little and Men in Black lose steam. Also facing diminishing returns are Lucasfilms' Star Wars and New Line's Austin Powers. Oddly enough, best buddies Matt Damon (The Bourne Identity) and Ben Affleck (who replaced Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears) starred in equally successful spy thrillers -- which are now both healthy franchises for Universal and Paramount, respectively. Ford, 60, may wish that he had stuck with the Tom Clancy series; he considered working at a discount in Traffic, which won two Oscars, but instead chose a $25 million payday with Russian-submarine thriller K-19: The Widowmaker -- and was rewarded with his smallest opening since 1991's Regarding Henry. On a recent Charlie Rose Show, Ford told guest host Sydney Pollack that when he invests his energy in a movie, he likes to get paid his full price. He might want to rethink that strategy.

Of the big studios, Warner Bros. had the most embarrassing belly-flop. Scooby-Doo's profits will vanish down the sinkhole of The Adventures of Pluto Nash, which earned $2.2 million its first weekend, the worst nationwide studio opening ever. "It's as big a hit as you can take in the movie business," says Revolution chief Joe Roth. Nothing else comes close. Even Warner's own Battlefield Earth and The Postman had stronger openings.

But Warner's can lord it over poor MGM/UA, the studio that brought up the rear in summer market share. Back in 2001, after a string of failures (Stigmata, Supernova), vice-chairman Chris McGurk replaced the marketing-and-distribution department assembled by ex-chairman Frank Mancuso with a weaker team. Post–September 11, he pushed back John Woo's Windtalkers from November to June, so instead of being first in a string of war movies, it was last. After another round of MGM duds (Hart's War, Rollerball, Bandits), Windtalkers also took a nosedive. So McGurk hired yet another marketing chief. This November, however, an old friend may come to MGM's rescue -- if they can handle it right. It's a 40-year-old franchise by the name of Bond. James Bond.


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