Summer 2000 Box Office Wrapup

Spies, superheroes, and Roman warriors had moviegoers reaching for their wallets this summer as the year's most important season ended its run on a slightly down note. This summer, Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible 2 found it not so difficult to lead all contenders with a domestic tally of $214M and a worldwide haul of over $500M. Gladiator, another blockbuster released in May, followed with the silver medal with $184M stateside and over $425M globally. Looking at the period of May 5 to September 4 (Gladiator's opening to Labor Day), North American moviegoers bought roughly 600 million tickets spending about $3.15 billion at the box office, according to Exhibitor Relations. That's down 4% in grosses and 7% in admissions from the corresponding frame in 1999.

For the first time since 1991, the summer box office declined from the previous season as higher ticket prices and more available screens failed to boost revenue totals to a new level. But 1999 was a hard year to measure up to with hits like Austin Powers 2 and Tarzan, surprise smashes like The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense, and of course, the early summer behemoth Star Wars Episode I. Going into the summer, the year-to-date box office was up 10% over the previous year but that lead all but vanished after Labor Day. Hollywood runs a product-driven industry and the films that studios offered this summer just did not excite consumers the way that 1999's did. Plenty of testosterone was pumped into theaters, but few quality female-skewing movies were released hurting admissions.

Also, the films did not have much of an impact on pop culture. In addition to raking in tons of cash, hits like Episode I, Austin Powers, and Blair Witch had everyone buzzing including those who rarely go out to see movies. This year, no film really went beyond being just a box office smash. There was no phenomenon. Ask moviegoers this Christmas which summer movies they remember and they'll be puzzled. "No movie captured the nation's attention like Phantom Menace did last year which got people into the habit of moviegoing early in the summer," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. Plus there were no major theme songs that defined the season like Madonna's "Beautiful Stranger" from Austin Powers 2 or Aerosmith's "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing" from 1998's Armageddon. MI2 and Nutty Professor II had some good soundtrack sales, but overall it was a lame summer for retailers of companion discs. And without Star Wars, toy and merchandise tie-in sales were weaker too.

This summer, only MI2 managed to gross over $200M. Last summer, both The Phantom Menace and Austin Powers 2 achieved those heights and The Sixth Sense eventually smashed that barrier soon after Labor Day. A dozen movies went on to gross over $100M last summer. Once Gone in 60 Seconds reaches nine digits, this summer's tally will be the same. But the big difference came from midlevel performers. Seven films reached $50-100M last summer while this year ten will finish there meaning the wealth was spread out more.

One word to describe the summer would be predictable. Mission: Impossible 2 became the highest-grossing film as many had projected, and there were few major surprises. Several pictures like Gladiator, Big Momma's House, and Chicken Run were expected to succeed but went beyond forecasts. Others like Dinosaur, The Patriot, and Me, Myself, and Irene performed below some expectations but still collected solid grosses. Scary Movie was the only true shocker as the $19M spoof comedy sizzled with a $42.3M opening and has grossed over $150M to date. It filled a mid-summer young adult comedy void that Austin Powers 2, Big Daddy, and American Pie took advantage of last year.

The season was also inconsistent with ups and downs at every corner. In 1996, the summer ignited with Twister, Mission: Impossible, and ID4 but cooled off in the second half. The following year saw disappointing results in the first half but a stellar end with Men In Black and Air Force One. 1998 and 1999 were fairly strong through their entire four-month spans. But in Y2K, the summer began with a powerful May with Gladiator, Dinosaur, and MI2 leading up to a record-shattering Memorial Day weekend, despite the absence of The Phantom Menace. Then the box office hit the brakes in June as films failed to score huge openings and attendance slumped. Independence Day weekend turned things around with the one-two punch of The Perfect Storm and The Patriot which began a record July period. However, August saw few quality films which excited the public and theatrical activity continually slowed down as Labor Day approached.

Summer 2000 marked a return to veteran filmmakers. In 1998, female directors like Mimi Leder and Betty Thomas scored big hits with Deep Impact and Doctor Dolittle respectively. Last summer, young newcomers were all the rage as hits like The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, and American Pie were all directed by relative unknowns. But this year, most of the top films were helmed by the same older male directors who have been keeping Hollywood busy over the last couple of decades. Ridley Scott, Wolfgang Petersen, Roland Emmerich, John Woo, Robert Zemeckis, and Clint Eastwood all directed big movies this summer. And minority filmmakers got to roll the dice too. In addition to Woo's MI2, there was Keenan Ivory Wayans' Scary Movie, John Singleton's Shaft, Tarsem Singh's The Cell, Joan Chen's Autumn in New York, and Spike Lee's The Original Kings of Comedy.

The absence of a megahit the size of Star Wars Episode I certainly played a large part in this summer being weaker than 1999. The Phantom Menace made vital contributions to the record summer through both direct and indirect ways. It donated a mammoth $421M to the box office by Labor Day, but it also boosted everything around it. Millions of moviegoers sold out of Episode I shows spent their dollars on other films. Plus the massive audience it drew came in and saw trailers and posters for all the upcoming summer product and made return trips to the cinema all season long. While this year's equivalent, Mission: Impossible 2, was a surefire blockbuster, it just did not have the impact on overall moviegoing that The Phantom Menace did.

Determining how profitable a movie is has become more difficult with each passing year. Studios split event pictures, stars take percentages, and enormous marketing costs are often overlooked. But if a film can generate a domestic gross that doubles its reported negative cost, then it's certainly off to a good start before hitting ancillary markets. Movies that fall into that category from this summer include MI2, X-Men, and Chicken Run. Other moneymakers were able to generate grosses that were four to seven times larger than their production budgets like Scary Movie, Big Momma's House, Road Trip, and Bring It On. On the opposite side, big-budget bombs included Universal's The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and the space movies Battlefield Earth and Titan A.E.

Family films did not have a banner season this summer as audiences virtually ignored offerings like Rocky and Bullwinkle, Fantasia 2000, Thomas and the Magic Railroad, and even Titan A.E. Disney gobbled up $136M domestically and $70M overseas to date for the computer-animated Dinosaur which was good but below expectations. With a mammoth production budget estimated to be between $125M and $200M, plus tens of millions more for marketing, Dinosaur should have performed better especially since it touted itself as being the future of animation. By comparison, last summer the studio released Tarzan which eventually grossed $435M worldwide. One family film which did work this summer was the clay-animation hit Chicken Run from DreamWorks which has collected $104M to date becoming the studio's highest-grossing toon. Disney's The Kid starring Bruce Willis was a moderate hit taking in $67M while Pokemon 2000 grossed a decent $43M, even though it completely collapsed after its opening week.

Teen movies had mixed results with the gross-out hit Road Trip being the valedictorian taking in $69M. After that, disappointing sales greeted Center Stage, Boys and Girls, Loser, and The In Crowd. But ending the summer on a high note was the cheerleader comedy Bring It On which nabbed the number one spot over two consecutive weekends. Though young people are on vacation and out seeing movies in the summer, the season saw a sharp increase in R-rated films. In fact, eight of the eighteen weekends were led by R pictures compared with just two from last summer.

It was a terrific summer for African-Americans in the industry, both in front of and behind the camera. Nearly every film with a significant black element to it was successful. Eight years after hitting the screen in Boomerang, Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence each had crossdressing comedy hits with Nutty Professor II and Big Momma's House, respectively, which grossed $110-120M a piece. The new remake of Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson and directed by John Singleton, opened at number one and should finish with a solid $70M. The low-budget standup comedy film The Original Kings of Comedy became a surprising late-summer moneymaker and Universal played up the white-black competition angle for Bring It On which shocked many with its strong opening. Even the summer's biggest movie, Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible 2, saw black actors in major roles - Thandie Newton as the leading lady and Ving Rhames as the tech-savvy sidekick. And of course, Keenan Ivory Wayans directed a diverse cast, including brothers Shawn and Marlon, in Scary Movie which was aimed at a mainstream audience of teens and young adults.

While African-American stars were flexing their muscles, women were mostly shut out this summer. Top draws like Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, and Ashley Judd all had films released in the spring and were nowhere to be found during the summer months. The ladies who did have successful films were playing second fiddle to bigger male stars like Michelle Pfeiffer in What Lies Beneath or Angelina Jolie in Gone in 60 Seconds. Demi Moore bombed in the indie film Passion of Mind, Winona Rider wilted away in Autumn in New York, and Kim Basinger caused little commotion in I Dreamed of Africa and Bless the Child. And although you wouldn't know it from its title, a popular source of female starpower this summer came from X-Men which featured Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. Girlpower did get stronger in August when Jennifer Lopez hit the top spot in The Cell followed by Kirsten Dunst in Bring It On,

Looking at studio performance, DreamWorks was the summer's standout performer with fantastic grosses coming from a wide variety of films. Gladiator, Road Trip, Small Time Crooks, Chicken Run, and What Lies Beneath should eventually gross over $525M in combined domestic receipts. Plus, some of the films carried modest budgets too. Studio distribution chief Jim Tharp gives much of the credit to the talented filmmakers behind the movies, but also reflects on the company's overall strategy. "We planted ourselves on the May 5th date with Gladiator about a year ago after seeing the first preview," said Tharp. He added "Later on, we knew that Mission: Impossible 2 would play like a sequel and open big on Memorial Day weekend, but had confidence in Gladiator's staying power."

Tharp admitted that Chicken Run was a risk since stop-animation had no successful track record at the box office, but the studio continued to support the film which found its audience and crossed the $100M mark. But the two biggest hits were shared with other studios - Gladiator with Universal and What Lies Beneath with Fox - so global wealth will have to be shared somewhat. But DreamWorks had the most enviable batting average around and enjoyed a much better summer than last year when its only players were The Haunting and The Love Letter.

As usual, Buena Vista helped itself to a large slice of the summer box office pie but spent a ton to produce and market its slate. The distributor opened its annual summer animated adventure a month earlier than normal with the May 19th release of Dinosaur. Hoping for a longer playperiod, Disney instead enjoyed stellar sales in the first few weeks, but saw rapid erosion soon afterwards with little strength left when kids got out of school in mid-June. Gone in 60 Seconds reunited Nicolas Cage with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and should surpass $100M although it was a very pricey film to bring to market. The Kid and Coyote Ugly both secured solid grosses but the 35mm release of Fantasia 2000 attracted few fans.

Twentieth Century Fox went into the summer with one of the most ambitious slates and ended up with mostly positive results. X-Men was a $75M gamble that paid off with over $153M to date. Few would have guessed in May that the studio would do better with a Martin Lawrence comedy than a Jim Carrey one, but that's exactly what happened. Big Momma's House opened big and endured while Me, Myself, and Irene debuted well but faded faster. The pair should finish with $117M and $90M respectively. Fox's risky toon Titan A.E. was backed by over $100M in production and marketing costs but only grossed $23M domestically and was equally impotent overseas.

The specialized arena also suffered a year-to-year decline as widely popular independent films were hard to find. The summer of 1999 witnessed hits like Tea With Mussolini, The Red Violin, Run Lola Run, and Buena Vista Social Club collect a combined $32M by Labor Day. This season, the best performers were Paramount Classics' Sunshine, Shooting Gallery's Croupier, plus spring holdovers The Virgin Suicides and East is East which have joined forces for a cumulative gross of just $20M. Fine Line's Saving Grace took in an impressive $3.7M in limited release in August but has now crossed over to the wide release world. Of course, it won't compare to last summer's indie-turned-mainstream hit The Blair Witch Project. Just like megaplexes, arthouses need good product to keep themselves afloat.

So where does the box office go from here? The relatively weak August period will provide little momentum for the fall season which puts the pressure on the holidays to help bring activity back up again. But, next summer is already looking like a potential gold mine. Among the movies expected to be completed for release are Jerry Bruckheimer's Pearl Harbor (which has claimed Memorial Day weekend), Steven Spielberg's A.I. (set for Independence Day weekend), Jurassic Park 3, Ali, Rush Hour 2, Final Fantasy, Doctor Dolittle 2, and Disney's Atlantis. If the lineup delivers on its promises, 1999's record could become history.

Projected Total Grosses for Top 20 Summer Films

Top 20 Summer Openings

Legs of Summer Films

Last Updated : September 8, 2000

Written by Gitesh Pandya