Summer 2001 Box Office Preview

by Gitesh Pandya

May 8, 2001

With the record-breaking $68.1M launch of The Mummy Returns, the summer box office has begun with an explosive start and aims to shatter all previous records with an impressive lineup of motion pictures that will bring dinosaurs, apes, and an epic World War II battle into a theater near you. Sequels will pop up around every corner as will movies based on video games or remakes of old classics. Year-to-date box office is up 10% versus last year going into the all-important summer season, but can this year's slate match the performances displayed by last year's MI:2, X-Men, Gladiator, and The Perfect Storm?

Hollywood is betting big on sequels this summer - more so than in many years. With The Mummy Returns getting the season off to a sizzling start, other return trips that studios are hoping will appeal to moviegoers include Dr. Dolittle 2, Scary Movie 2, Jurassic Park III, Rush Hour 2, and American Pie 2. Universal is releasing half of those films and is putting most of its eggs in the sequel basket this summer. All of the pictures are follow-ups to hit films from the past three years so the characters and stories should still be fresh in the memories of ticket buyers. Sequels generally gross about two-thirds of what the original made and that rule might just apply to many of this summer's selection.

Big name stars, long a staple of the summer movie season, will be hard to find this year. A-list talent like Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Jim Carrey, Sandra Bullock, Bruce Willis, and Harrison Ford are all sitting on the bench. Taking their places are younger faces looking to become box office heavyweights like Ben Affleck, Angelina Jolie, Haley Joel Osment, Mark Wahlberg, and Brendan Fraser.

Hollywood's major studios have left the month of May wide open with a mere five films opening in wide release over four weekends. This is down from eleven wide bows last May, eight in 1999 (when The Phantom Menace scared away the competition), and thirteen in 1998. With The Mummy Returns kickstarting the summer in a huge way on May 4th, Sony will try to appeal to the same action audience a week later with the jousting picture A Knight's Tale. May 18th sees DreamWorks release only its second film of the year (after March's The Mexican) with the animated comedy Shrek. The toon has generated very strong buzz during its pre-release stage and with the voices of box office titans Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron Diaz, it could score with families and beyond. On the same weekend, Warner Bros. counters with the suspense thriller Angel Eyes starring Jennifer Lopez whose last two films, The Wedding Planner and The Cell, both debuted at number one and went on to gross over $60M each.

Closing out May, and opening over the traditional weekend for summer's launch, Buena Vista's mega-budgeted action-drama Pearl Harbor aims to conquer theaters over Memorial Day weekend with ease. The tentpole picture comes from producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay who previously collaborated on summer blockbusters like 1998's Armageddon and 1996's The Rock for the studio. Unlike the story on which it is based, the attack on the marketplace is being anticipated by all and Pearl Harbor is a favorite to become one of the season's top-grossing pictures.

The month of June brings more action, science fiction, comedy, and a Disney cartoon. Two star-driven comedies go head-to-head on June 1st. Sony unleashes The Animal starring Rob Schneider while MGM counters with the Martin Lawrence-Danny DeVito pic What's The Worst That Could Happen? Lawrence has the stronger track record and his previous hit Big Momma's House opened on the same weekend last year before becoming the comedian's highest-grossing film ever. Schneider, however, scored a surprise hit with 1999's Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo and is trying to take it to the next level. On June 8th, DreamWorks opens its sci-fi comedy Evolution starring David Duchovny and Julianne Moore hoping to connect with the same audience that made Men in Black such a smash hit four years ago. On the same weekend, John Travolta tries to find success after last year's bombs with the action film Swordfish from Warner Bros.

With school children leaving classes in mid-June, the weekend of the 15th promises to be a blockbuster frame with the arrival of the highly anticipated adventure film Tomb Raider from Paramount. The Angelina Jolie starrer boasts a big-budget production, superb marketing, perfect casting, and a built-in audience of video game fans that are sure to flock to the theaters to see their favorite digital heroine come to life. Tomb Raider certainly has the potential to be one of the strongest performers of the summer. Meanwhile, Disney's animation unit returns to a familiar look after last year's Dinosaur with Atlantis which should prove to be a hit.

Eddie Murphy talks to animals again on June 22nd with the release of Fox's comedy sequel Dr. Dolittle 2. Competition for kids will be tough with the film squeezed in between Atlantis and Spielberg's A.I. Reaching the $144.1M gross of 1998's Doctor Dolittle seems very unlikely, but a decent run should greet the picture nonetheless. Also opening on June 22nd is Universal's drag-racing picture The Fast and the Furious which features lots of action but little starpower. Wednesday June 27th sees Sony release John Singleton's urban drama Baby Boy - a companion film to the director's 1991 hit Boyz N the Hood.

Three years after his Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan, the world's most commercially-successful filmmaker Steven Spielberg returns to multiplexes everywhere with the sci-fi tale A.I. Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law star in a film which Spielberg took over from the late Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros. plans to dominate the weekend of June 29th with A.I. and if history is any indicator, a solid run throughout July should follow.

With Independence Day falling on a Wednesday this summer, the marketplace will not be able to benefit from a long weekend, but two films still plan to use the holiday as a launching pad. Miramax opens its horror spoof sequel Scary Movie 2 a year after the original shocked the industry with a $42.3M opening while Warner Bros. unleashes its live-action/animation hybrid Cats & Dogs featuring former Jurassic resident Jeff Goldblum. Fox joins the party with the Jet Li action picture Kiss of the Dragon on Friday, July 6th. The Scary Movie sequel could be the R-rated gross-out hit of the season and will have the comedy audience all to itself by early July. The following weekend witnesses the Wednesday launch of another video game-inspired motion picture - Final Fantasy from Sony - while on Friday the 13th, MGM will release the Reese Witherspoon film Legally Blonde aiming for teens and young adults and Paramount answers with the Robert De Niro film The Score.

The second half of July will see some big bets on the table as distributors avoiding Spielberg's A.I. path start getting back into the game. On July 18, Universal reaches into the vault once again with Jurassic Park III which is not directed by Spielberg. The studio is hoping that moviegoers have not become sick of digitally drawn T-Rexes after the first two Jurassic films and Disney's animated feature from last summer.

Sony, meanwhile, debuts the Julia Roberts film America's Sweethearts that Friday July 20th as the perfect counterprogramming choice. The romantic comedy also stars Billy Crystal, John Cusack, and Catherine Zeta-Jones and will be one of few strong female-skewing releases of the season as it follows Roberts' well-publicized Oscar win. Plus, with My Best Friend's Wedding, Notting Hill, and Runaway Bride, the actress has plenty of experience making ticket buyers line up in the summer to see her winning smile. Launching solo on July 27th is Fox's $100M remake of Planet of the Apes from director Tim Burton. This event film stars Mark Wahlberg and hopes to bring the beloved story of the 1968 hit to a new generation with the help of modern special effects.

The month of August will no doubt see some shuffling before it arrives as the release schedule is jam packed with movies. A number of the titles are sure to be pushed back to the fall or winter in order to survive. But some of the standout releases slated for the final month of summer include Rush Hour 2 on the 3rd and American Pie 2 on the 10th. Both sequels may fall short of the grosses of their previous installments, but many fans will be willing to revisit the lives of the characters that made the first films so popular.

The battle for family audiences will be fierce in the first half of summer with DreamWorks releasing Shrek in mid-May while children are still in school. Four weeks later is the national bow of Disney's Atlantis which will be quickly followed by Dr. Dolittle 2, A.I., and Cats & Dogs. The second half of summer, however, is very light on family fare leaving the door open for a shrewd distributor to move a title into that period hoping for a surprise hit like Free Willy or Babe. Otherwise, the wide appeal of A.I. might allow it to become the film that most parents take their kids to in July and August.

Studios, of course, will be looking to grab the most market share this summer with their arsenals of cinematic weapons. Buena Vista is light on releases, but with its annual one-two punch of a Bruckheimer action vehicle and a Disney animated feature, the Mouse House could find its way to the top of the list. But it will have fierce competition from other distributors like Universal which already has The Mummy Returns delivering mammoth grosses and expects strong sales from sequels to Jurassic Park and American Pie. Warner Bros. is also a top contender for the summer crown anchored by Spielberg's A.I. Sony plans numerous releases this season and is hoping that volume will give it a leg up with films like A Knight's Tale, America's Sweethearts, and Final Fantasy. Fox has some gambles in Planet of the Apes, Moulin Rouge, and Dr. Dolittle 2 so a number of studios are in contention for the summer box office crown.

Surprise hits always make the season unpredictable and this year could have its own version of a sleeper smash like The Blair Witch Project or Ghost. Moviegoers will have plenty of reasons to hit the multiplexes this summer and a constant flow of commercially appealing product should keep momentum strong. With the help of slightly higher ticket prices, the industry could very well find itself bragging about a new summer record come Labor Day.

Summer 2001 Release Schedule (dates subject to change)