Fade to Green: A Sleeper Summer Opens Some Eyes

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007

LOS ANGELES -- For the past two summers, the entertainment press wondered aloud if going to the movies was an endangered experience, as audiences stayed away in droves. The Hollywood studios blamed the theater chains ( eeww, sticky floors) and the theater owners blamed the studios ( psst, your movies stink). It got so bad that the Onion, the satirical newspaper, took note with the headline: "Citing Slow Summer Box Office, Hollywood Calls It Quits."

Now? Never mind all that. Audiences, like mysterious migratory herd animals, have returned to their seats at the multiplex. The summer of 2007 is heading toward a record-breaking season, with box office receipts currently running $3.8 billion, up 10 percent over 2006 and 6 percent over 2004, the previous most lucrative summer. For the year, the number of tickets sold (admissions) is up almost 3 percent from last year; that's really the figure to watch, as box office dollars are not adjusted for inflation and ticket prices continue to creep up.

"Let's just say you're not hearing the death-of-the-movie-theater story anymore," says Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners. Corcoran sounds relieved that earlier predictions that consumers might prefer to watch films on their cellphones and plasma screens proved premature. "It's been a really strong summer, with surprising performances by late-summer films."

Corcoran is being polite. Traditionally, August has been a dumping ground for turkeys. But this July and August have been more ka-ching than flop, as each weekend launches another hit: "The Simpsons Movie," "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Rush Hour 3" and "Superbad."

And while summer is typically front-loaded with likely winners, this August it is finishing with a bang. Some theater owners are even complaining that there are too many blockbusters-- that this week's gotta-see movie pushes last week's hit out of the way too fast, and that maybe the summer movie season should be expanded to include April and September, so more cash could be wrung out of each success.

For the first time, four summer blockbusters (about pirates, Transformers, an ogre, a spider) made more than $300 million domestically. Overall, 14 films have crossed the $100 million mark.

"If Hollywood builds it, audiences will come," says Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, the movie tracking Web site. Why the big bounce? "It is purely content-driven," Gray says. And that content is often driven by youth; never underestimate the discriminating taste of a 13-year-old with an allowance.

The movies audiences want to see apparently include the number three. It is the season of the sequel's sequel. "But they made sequels that people actually want to see versus sequels that people didn't want to see," Gray says.

For example? Audiences were hungry for more Jack Sparrow and Peter Parker and Shrek in ways they were not for retreads like "Daddy Day Camp," the worst-reviewed movie of the summer (according to the Web site Rotten Tomatoes, 58 of 59 critics agree: It is rotten to its core).

Originality? Not so important. Eight of the 14 top-grossing films were sequels, while two were based on popular TV shows with a line of toys ("The Simpsons," "Transformers") and one was a do-over -- "Hairspray" was previously a movie and a Broadway musical. In the next two weeks, two more sequels, "Evan Almighty" and "Rush Hour 3," will likely join the $100 club. Perhaps the only truly original blockbuster of the summer is the French-rat-out-of-water animated adventure, "Ratatouille."

While the box office numbers might suggest a giddy greed fest in executive suites, it all depends. "I think the main thing about the summer is that the sequels, while costing so much to make, barely performed to expectations," says Harry Knowles, founder of the filmgoers' Web site Ain't It Cool News. For example, while "Evan Almighty" might have earned $98 million at the box office, it reportedly cost $175 million to produce and market, making it the most expensive comedy ever filmed. Similarly huge amounts were spent making most of the top grossers.

What else did summer reap, beyond receipts? "Oh my God, this summer is so depressing," says Jeffrey Wells of the popular film industry blog Hollywood Elsewhere. "It was hell watching these movies."

Anne Thompson, a columnist for the trade newspaper Variety, says Hollywood appears smart about the movies it did release: "Though the critics generally didn't like a lot of the sequels, the audiences did."

Thompson subscribes to a cyclical theory of the box office. Meaning that bad stretches are often followed by good ones that are then followed by bad, as Hollywood alternatively coasts and strives. The year 2005 was weak, so "the marketing and production people were generally freaked out because the audiences weren't behaving as they were expected," Thompson says. So the creative types "went back into their bunkers and were creative."

And it was not particularly robust in what is called counterprogramming, when Hollywood tosses a serious bone to adults during the hazy days of July. Audiences were not eager to see Angelina Jolie as the widow of slain journalist Daniel Pearl in "A Mighty Heart" ($9 million), though Michael Moore is happy with $23 million for "Sicko," his documentary about health insurance. The art house standouts of the summer were the Edith Piaf biopic "La Vie en Rose" ($9 million), the Jane Austen romance "Becoming Jane" ($9 million) and the tale of Irish heartache and music "Once" ($7 million). None went mainstream on the order of last year's "Little Miss Sunshine." But Oscar season is just around the corner . . .

© 2007 The Washington Post Company