With few flops, Hollywood enjoys a hot summer

Thu Jul 16, 2009 9:38pm EDT

1 of 2. Cast members (L-R) Christian Bale, Bryce Dallas Howard, Moon Bloodgood, and Australian actor Sam Worthington pose at the U.S. premiere of the film 'Terminator Salvation' at the Grauman's Chinese theatre in Hollywood, California, May 14, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Danny Moloshok

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - So far, so good.

Hollywood has been licking its chops over the prospect of a record summer boxoffice, and the industry remains on track for just that midway into the season's third month. The reason is simple, if unsexy: Although several films have underperformed, nothing has gone catastrophically wrong.

"There haven't been any train wrecks, even though most summers seem to have one," one grateful studio executive says.

That's partly because the industry has made a fine art of balancing the U.S. and global appeal of its films.

In a notable misfire, Warner Bros.' pricey sci-fi actioner "Terminator Salvation" topped out at $123 million domestically, but foreign rights-holder Sony did significantly better with $228 million. Similarly, Sony's "Angels & Demons" fetched a nifty $342 million overseas to bail out the Tom Hanks starrer, which underwhelmed domestically with $131 million.

Still, toss in such star-studded underachievers as Sony's Denzel Washington-John Travolta thriller "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" ($62 million) and some have begun to blame high-profile, highly paid casts for their films' fates.

Such analysis appears hasty. Certainly some stars didn't shine, but to say they hurt their films at the box office seems silly.

The Jack Black vehicle "Year One," for instance, largely was a victim of its release slot: two weeks after the unsuccessful -- and awkwardly similar -- comedy "Land of the Lost" and a week before box office behemoth "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."

"Lost" failed to connect less because of star Will Ferrell's dimmed appeal -- though more than a couple of critics have suggested an image rethink -- but rather its neither-fish-nor-foul concept. A PG-13 rating for crude language and a few drug references turned off too many family moviegoers, and a big-screen adaptation of a whimsically cheesy 1970s children's TV series never was going to be an easy sell with contemporary teens.

Meanwhile, Ben Stiller continues to enjoy a blessed career. Critics dismissed his sequel, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," but it has rung up a more-than-respectable $171 million domestically and an outsized $207 million abroad through last weekend -- no mean feat for a comedy.

As for a one-time A-lister who has taken an undeniable bruising of late, that would be Eddie Murphy. His family comedy "Imagine That," a mere $15 million domestic grosser, almost was as big an embarrassment for Paramount as his fantasy comedy "Meet Dave" was for Fox last year.

But plenty has gone right in the summer -- so much, in fact, that the season remains on track to notch a box office record when final grosses are tallied after Labor Day in early September. Nielsen EDI data show industry grosses up 5% compared with a year ago, despite the summer featuring one fewer weekend because of calendar fluctuations.

The year-ago season came within 0.5% of summer 2007's record $4.16 billion tally. So, will the industry manage this summer what it couldn't a year ago?

Definitely maybe.

Four films so far have surpassed $200 million domestically, compared with three at a similar point last summer, and the latest "Harry Potter" installment likely will join them. Plus, at least four pictures have significantly outperformed industry expectations:

-- The "Transformers" sequel always was viewed as the season's top grosser, but almost nobody thought it would rake in as much as it has.

-- Paramount's franchise reboot "Star Trek" wasn't seen as a $200 million-plus domestic grosser before its release, given the franchise's then-moribund state. Although it has rung up less foreign coin (about $125 million) than at home, it has overachieved compared with past "Trek" movies.

-- Before the release of "Up," one Wall Street analyst said early clips suggested Disney might have an underachiever on its hands. Turns out the release has been the second-best Pixar-produced performer to date, behind "Finding Nemo." And they say nobody knows anything in Hollywood.

-- Warner Bros. greenlighted a sequel to "The Hangover" before the Todd Phillips-helmed comedy even hit theaters, but $200 million-plus? Now that's a guilt-free hangover.

Midsummer domestic rankings show Paramount sitting in first place in year-to-date market share with $1 billion-plus; the studio also tops the summer pecking order with $675 million, thanks to "Transformers" and "Star Trek." But Warners will rise in the rankings any minute now, with "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" already packing in capacity audiences after hitting multiplexes this week.

Looking ahead, the rest of the season's releases will determine whether the summer box office will be one for the record books.

Those include Universal's Judd Apatow comedy "Funny People," starring Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, set to unspool July 31; Paramount's effects-driven military actioner "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra," scheduled to bow August 7; and Quentin Tarantino's war picture "Inglourious Basterds" and Rob Zombie's horror sequel "Halloween 2," set for release by the Weinstein Co. on August 21 and August 28, respectively.

Of the bunch, the Stephen Sommers-directed "G.I. Joe" seems to have the most going for it. Once the subject of rumors about a troubled production, the Hasbro co-production will hit the market as the first pure action film in several weeks. Skewing young, "G.I. Joe" is filled with crowd-pleasing visual effects and mayhem.

Universal would love for "Funny People" to draw the same mix of couples and young men that took Apatow's "Knocked Up" to nearly $150 million domestically, but the film treads in much more dramatic waters than the director's core audience might expect.

"Basterds" is likely to draw much older audiences. But the success of the Brad Pitt starrer and Weinstein's subsequent slasher pic are key to the company's fiscal health.

Pleased with the season's theatrical performance to date, industryites are optimistic about prospects for a solid close to the summer.

"We had such a stacking up of big titles from early May forward that I think it's remarkable how well most have been able to deal with that," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder says. "And there's plenty of juice still to go."

There does remain the small matter of weekend comparisons for the balance of the summer. Comparable 2008 frames were inflated by historically robust grosses from Warners' $533 million blockbuster "The Dark Knight," from mid-July onward.

"I just don't know how we're going to cope with that," a top studio executive says. "It was just such a monster."

It means that though the prospect of the season's delivering a record haul remains doable in theory, getting there might require a little studio teamwork.

"You can't expect to have another film take the place of 'Dark Knight,'" Disney distribution president Chuck Viane says. "It's going to have to be a combination of films, and it's definitely going to be very tough to beat over that stretch."

(Editing by Dean Goodman at Reuters)

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