Summer 2000 Box Office Preview

by Gitesh Pandya

May 3, 2000

Moviegoers won't have to travel to Sydney to watch top competitors duke it out for box office gold. The summer games begin in May at theaters across North America as Hollywood rolls out its best and brightest athletes in an attempt to cash in on the busiest season of all. Last year, fueled by the highly-anticipated behemoth Star Wars Episode I and the surprise smash The Sixth Sense, ticket buyers dropped a mammoth $3 billion at the domestic box office making it a tough act to follow. But this year new megaplexes have opened for business, ticket prices have inched up again, and studios are prepared to unleash their most potent weapons hoping that total grosses will reach a new milestone come Labor Day. Movie fans will ultimately decide what is and is not worth spending money on and will be solicited by Roman warriors, comic book heroes, digital dinosaurs, and a super spy that's not as shagadelic as last summer's.

While high hopes rest on the shoulders of Tinseltown's most extravagant investments, the summer box office has at times become an unpredictable organism that chews up and spits out expensive star vehicles for lunch. Surefire blockbusters have fallen flat on their faces (The Last Action Hero, Hudson Hawk, The Cable Guy) while smaller films have become sleeper smashes (Ghost, There's Something About Mary, The Blair Witch Project). This year should be no exception. But the biggest difference between the upcoming summer slate and last year's record fireworks is the absense of a mega-tentpole picture like The Phantom Menace. Not only did George Lucas' mighty prequel kick in over $400M to the season's overall cume, but it also boosted everything around it by pumping up consumers for the films that would come later. "This will be a more normal summer with the usual mix of action, adventure, comedies, and sequels" says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. "While there are a number of really big movies, there is no overshadowing film the size of Star Wars Episode I this year" he adds.

Summer is routinely a season filled with movies packed with action, special effects, stunts, and violence as a steady flow of testosterone flicks makes its way into cinemas throughout the months. But this year, perhaps inspired by Bill Gates, the boys of summer have monopolized the entire release schedule leaving a bare minimum for Hollywood's leading ladies. Marching into battle are top stars like Cruise, Carrey, Gibson, Murphy, Cage, Ford, Willis, Eastwood, De Niro, and Travolta who has double duty. Sitting out the summer festivities are Ryan, Bullock, Barrymore, Foster, Kidman, Zeta-Jones, Paltrow, Stone, and Julia Roberts who had a pair of blockbusters last summer. Femme-skewing pictures like Notting Hill, The Horse Whisperer, and The Bridges of Madison County all succeeded by offering an alternative to all the early summer action flicks. Brian Fuson, chief box office analyst for The Hollywood Reporter, agrees saying "it could be a missed opportunity because not tapping into one major segment of the audience could slow the growth of all segments." This serious lack of estrogen in the coming months could hurt overall momentum but also make a hit out of pictures with even a moderate amount of female appeal.

Taking the slot that Deep Impact and The Mummy used to jumpstart the summer season, Dreamworks has pegged its epic adventure film Gladiator to the May 5th date wisely attempting to beat all the other big ticket items to the marketplace. The R-rated Russell Crowe starrer reportedly carries a pricetag north of $100M and should easily top the charts in its debut. Right on its heels is another big-budget, effects-filled, action vehicle - Battlefield Earth starring John Travolta - which bows on May 12th. The Warner Bros. release will go head to head with the second slaying of Gladiator and will appeal mostly to the same audience - males thirsty for thrills. A villianous Travolta in makeup may not be the best commercial anchor for Battlefield Earth which will have to fight hard since moviegoers will be able to choose from many other big bang titles in May. With its Cinco de Mayo release date, Ridley Scott's Gladiator should mark its territory early and establish itself as a first or second choice entry throughout the month while Battlefield Earth, which is showing far less consumer interest, could see a strong opening but get lost in the crowd thereafter.

Disney's annual summer animated feature has been a staple of the mid-June calendar since The Lion King roared in 1994. This year, the Mouse House has moved its launch date up to May 19th as it brings out Dinosaur which marks a new era in digital animation. The Disney track record speaks for itself so a monster opening should be followed by a solid sophomore session which falls over Memorial Day weekend. Buena Vista distribution chief Chuck Viane states "This is not your traditional animated feature. I think people will be in awe of the revolutionary animation process once they see it." Carrying a PG rating, Dinosaur will be the only major offering for families for a full month so longevity seems likely. A gross exceeding the $171M of last summer's Tarzan could certainly result making it one of the top contenders for the summer box office crown.

Just as in the last year of the Summer Olympics, Tom Cruise plans to infiltrate theaters over Memorial Day weekend with the season's tentpole picture Mission: Impossible 2. Though it follows a series of other large scale action movies (U-571, Gladiator, and Battlefield Earth), the John Woo spy pic should explode on the scene and hold its own in June and will pose a serious challenge to the original's $181M domestic take. A built-in audience should flood theaters over its six-day debut frame and its second and third weekends have clear sailing. However, the holiday weekend also sees the scheduling of Buena Vista's comedy-western Shanghai Noon, starring Woo's Hong Kong pal Jackie Chan, which will face an uphill battle trying to grab the attention of moviegoers at a time when much bigger action films will be playing in the same megaplex.

Sensing a potential comedy drought, Fox has shrewdly positioned the Martin Lawrence laugher Big Momma's House on June 2nd. The comedian saw solid $60M+ grosses for last year's Life and Blue Streak and could take it higher with his Momma. The following weekend reverts back to testosterone action with the Jerry Bruckheimer production Gone in 60 Seconds with Oscar winners Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie. Cage has watched his starpower fade recently and this entry may not do much to help matters. A not-so-interesting car heist plot might not work with so many other action movies playing simultaneously. Cage catapulted to superstardom in 1996 with The Rock so if another Bruckheimer-produced summer actioner can't restore his luster, maybe nothing can.

The June 16th frame will truly stretch the marketplace with the debuts of Paramount's Shaft, the teen comedy Boys and Girls, and the animated films Titan AE and Fantasia 2000. Freddie Prinze Jr. and Jason Biggs (American Pie) could help make Boys and Girls into a summer hit with teens and young adults while that bad mutha' Shaft should carve out a decent slice of the pie. Fox has invested heavily in the production and marketing of Titan AE which aims to score with the sci-fi and comic book crowds. The toon represents one of the riskiest entries in the summer sweepstakes as fans could vote either way. To counter its animated adversaries, Disney will launch a four-week 35mm run of the hit film Fantasia 2000 in selected cities which is likely to become very popular just as the original IMAX version.

Jim Carrey reunites with the Farrelly brothers in the romantic comedy Me, Myself, and Irene which brings the comic star back to his silly roots on June 23rd. After Man on the Moon, audiences should approve of Carrey in his usual role and with so few films high on female appeal, the Fox comedy should score with women and couples. DreamWorks will add another cartoon to the pot on the same day with the claymation kidpic Chicken Run which will have its work cut out for it competing against the other animated films. However, early buzz has been very favorable and Mel Gibson's voice could be a valuable selling tool.

Independence Day weekend will be full of fireworks as Gibson's historical adventure The Patriot will take on the George Clooney disaster film The Perfect Storm and Universal's remake The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle starring Robert De Niro, Jason Alexander, and Rene Russo. The Lethal Weapon star is a much bigger draw than box office middleweight Clooney and the Revolutionary War theme will work over Fourth of July weekend more than a weather-related action thriller will. Giving fans a Roger Rabbit-like mix of live-action and animation, Bullwinkle faces tough competition from many other kids' movies but the brand name and starpower should allow it to do well just like fellow mid-summer live-action remakes George of the Jungle and Inspector Gadget.

July is filled with a number of winners and losers as well. Bruce Willis tries to expand his appeal outside of the action realm in Disney's The Kid while Miramax offers the slasher spoof Scary Movie from Keenan Ivory Wayans. Paramount brings back John Travolta as a weatherman in Nora Ephron's Numbers which could have sleeper potential. July 14th marks the launch of the highly-anticipated X Men movie which should roar into theaters backed by a deafening ad campaign. With new Batman, Superman, and Spiderman movies stuck in development hell, X Men will fill the void and should post impressive numbers since the market could really use a good summer comic book movie. Plus, in a season full of macho action films, the Fox release is the most unlikely source of girlpower with kick-butt female characters played by Halle Berry, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Anna Paquin, and Famke Janssen.

The other big ticket items for July should be What Lies Beneath, starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, and The Nutty Professor II with Eddie Murphy and Janet Jackson. Ford's teaming with the former Catwoman and director Robert Zemeckis in a summer suspense thriller should make for a fantastic rebound from last fall's disasterous Random Hearts. If DreamWorks markets What Lies Beneath properly, it could become the right movie at the right time since audiences tend to shift towards more sophisticated fare later in the summer. The Nutty sequel stands as an A-list comedy for late summer with not too much competition which should make grosses plump for The Klumps. Arriving weeks after the June kidpic crunch is Pokémon 2000 from Warner Bros. which is likely to feed on a lot of dollars as well since the cartoon craze is still hot with young ones.

More serious movies are usually scheduled in August as ticket buyers shy away from the steady diet of no-brain popcorn flicks. Attention may turn to Robert Redford's directorial effort The Legend of Bagger Vance starring Will Smith and Matt Damon. The golf drama looks to be the complete opposite of everything that opens in the three months before it and with popular sex symbols in the driver's seat, a hole in one could be the outcome. The August 4th date also finds Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, and James Garner in the astronaut flick Space Cowboys.

Every year, the summer box office seems to set a new record. In 1990, only four summer films crossed the $100M mark. By the end of the decade that tally climbed to a dozen led by Star Wars Episode I with $431M and The Sixth Sense with $293M. Will this summer continue the party and notch a new benchmark? It looks unlikely. First of all, there is no colossal anchor the size of The Phantom Menace to get the ball rolling. Early summer seems to have many hits, but the 1999 Jedi prequel contributed monster grosses and electrified overall moviegoing thereby allowing others to benefit too. Secondly, the overall slate of pictures seem to have less commercial appeal than last year's group. Also, the lack of femme-driven pictures like Runaway Bride and Notting Hill could do serious damage to attendance figures. How many summer movies are women really excited about? Finally, where will the sleepers come from? And can they bring in $430M like The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project did?

Of course, higher ticket prices and more available screens will certainly provide an assist to the eventual gross that Summer 2000 delivers. And surprise hits tend to come out of nowhere. But the current scouting report shows that while the summer box office will be red hot, it will have to work some serious overtime hours if it wants a chance at beating last year's record summer which collected $3 billion from the wallets of moviegoers across the United States and Canada. Still, the summer heat will sizzle and moviegoers will head to theaters in droves to catch a wide assortment of action films, comedies, sequels, remakes, and family flicks with the games beginning this Friday when Gladiator unleashes its might.

Summer 2000 Release Schedule (dates subject to change)