Originally created 07/21/98

Summer of near-blockbusters isn't all good news for studios



LOS ANGELES -- This summer at the movies is shaping up as the biggest ever, with two more films passing the $100 million mark over the weekend. So why isn't Hollywood celebrating?

Because, with half the summer gone, there has yet to be a blockbuster in the $200 million to $300 million range. "Godzilla," "Deep Impact," "Armageddon," "The Truman Show," "Mulan" and perhaps "Lethal Weapon 4" are heading toward the $120 million to $150 million range.

No mega-hits are on the horizon, either. "Saving Private Ryan," which opens on Friday, likely will wow critics but may scare off many moviegoers because of its graphic violence.

"Some serious soul-searching" is going on in the studios, industry analyst Tom Borys of ACNielsen EDI Inc. said.

"It's a hit-driven business, and I think there's a bit of a perception of a letdown so far, even though box office in total is up," said Borys, who tracks box office data.

The good-news, bad-news split has the studios trying to figure out whether they should break out the champagne or start firing people.

The string of near-blockbusters, combined with well-performing smaller movies such as "Hope Floats" and "A Perfect Murder," have put the box office take 7 percent ahead of where it was at the same time last summer, which was itself a record season.

But profits are diluted by soaring production and marketing costs, as well as revenue sharing schemes with talent and partner studios.

Meanwhile, as the slate of non-blockbuster action pictures has shown, it isn't enough anymore to appeal mainly to young male audiences to get huge summer business in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

"It's always the same problem. It's always a lot of pictures trying to get a piece of that pie," said Jeff Blake, distribution chief at Sony, which has "Godzilla" and "The Mask of Zorro."

"When $140 million or $160 million isn't good enough, that's a problem."

In a sign of the competition, last weekend alone four films grossed more than $10 million each, a rarity.

"The Mask of Zorro" debuted with $22.5 million, "Lethal Weapon 4" had $21.7 million for second place, "Armageddon" kept flying with $16.6 million for third and "There's Something About Mary" debuted with $13.7 million.

Meanwhile, two more movies passed the $100 million mark: "Dr. Dolittle" ($105 million overall, $9.5 million last weekend) and "Mulan" ($101 million, $4.9 million for the weekend).

That makes six $100 million-plus films this summer, counting "Godzilla," "Deep Impact," "The Truman Show" and "Armageddon."

The top 20 movies at North American theaters Friday through Sunday, followed by studio, gross, number of theater locations, receipts per location, total gross and number of weeks in release as compiled by ACNielsen EDI Inc. and Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.:

Top 10 movies

1. "The Mask of Zorro," Sony, $22.5 million, 2,515 locations, $8,957 average, $22.5 million, one week.

2. "Lethal Weapon 4," Warner Bros., $21.7 million, 3,117 locations, $6,970 average, $71.7 million, two weeks.

3. "Armageddon," Disney, $16.6 million, 3,184 locations, $5,211 average, $129.1 million, three weeks.

4. "There's Something About Mary," 20th Century Fox, $13.7 million, 2,186 locations, $6,286 average, $17.8 million, one week.

5. "Dr. Dolittle," 20th Century Fox, $9.5 million, 2,805 locations, $3,379 average, $105.4 million, four weeks.

6. "Small Soldiers," DreamWorks, $8.6 million, 2,613 locations, $3,310 average, $30.3 million, two weeks.

7. "Mulan," Disney, $4.9 million, 2,283 locations, $2,152 average, $101.3 million, five weeks.

8. "Madeline," Sony, $4.4 million, 1,863 locations, $2,352 average, $15.3 million, two weeks.

9. "The Truman Show," Paramount, $2.2 million, 1,540 locations, $1,411 average, $120 million, seven weeks.

10. "Six Days, Seven Nights," Disney, $2.1 million, 1,416 locations, $1,485 average, $67.5 million, six weeks.

11. "Out of Sight," Universal, $2.04 million, 1,430 locations, $1,430 average, $33.7 million, four weeks.

12. "The X-Files," 20th Century Fox, $2 million, 1,451 locations, $1,381 average, $78.3 million, five weeks.

13. "Titanic," Paramount, $1.3 million, 867 locations, $1,543 average, $590.5 million, 31 weeks.

14. "A Perfect Murder," Warner Bros., $848,372, 947 locations, $896 average, $66 million, seven weeks.

15. "Hope Floats," 20th Century Fox, $727,138, 653 locations, $1,114 average, $55.4 million, eight weeks.

16. "The Horse Whisperer," Disney, $547,928, 493 locations, $1,111 average, $71.6 million, 10 weeks.

17. "City of Angels," Warner Bros., $389,187, 604 locations, $644 average, $77.5 million, 15 weeks.

18. "Smoke Signals," Miramax, $380,123, 66 locations, $5,759 average, $1.2 million, four weeks.

19. "Gone With the Wind," New Line, $377,654, 200 locations, $1,888 average, $196.6 million cumulative, four weeks of re-release.

20. "The Opposite of Sex," Sony, $368,899, 163 locations, $2,263 average, $3.6 million, nine weeks.