Summer 2002 Box Office Preview

by Gitesh Pandya

May 8, 2002


Webslingers and Jedi knights inaugurate a new summer box office season which hopes to once again beat the previous year's record grosses. A-list stars like Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, and Mel Gibson, who all sat on the sidelines last summer, will return to the multiplexes this time around hoping to provide some muscle throughout the season. With healthy holiday holdovers like The Lord of the Rings and A Beautiful Mind, plus spring hits like Ice Age, Panic Room, and The Scorpion King, the box office in 2002 is already charging 16% ahead of last year's record pace.

Last summer, movies opened wider than ever with almost every major title bowing in over 3,000 theaters only to witness second-weekend declines of 50% or more. $60M+ debuts seemed to occur every other weekend. This summer could very well see more of the same although Star Wars should avoid the sophomore slump with Memorial Day weekend falling on its second session. Its Thursday launch is rare in North America but common in many other countries like Australia, where most of the film was lensed, and Fox's global release will keep the studio's accounting eggheads working overtime. Anticipation for Episode II is rapidly growing and mixed reactions to its 1999 predecessor should not prevent fans from trying out the new installment. With more screens (a reported 5,500 prints) and higher ticket prices, Clones could reach the $1 billion worldwide mark that Phantom Menace failed to break.

Tentpole pictures this summer include Sony's Spider-Man, which kicked off the season last weekend with a towering $114.8M bow, Fox's Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (May 16), Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (June 21) with Tom Cruise, Independence Day weekend's Men in Black 2, and Austin Powers in Goldmember set to bow on July 26. As usual, studios are trying to minimize risk with a number of films based on pre-sold concepts like sequels and movies based on cartoons, best-selling books, or comics. Testosterone flicks look to dominate the summer months, however, some distributors are trying to offer adult women some counterprogramming options like Unfaithful, About a Boy, Enough, and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood in the beginning of summer when Anakin and pals will rule the charts.

There is no doubt that Spider-Man will collect well over $200M before the blue text of the prologue to Episode II scrolls up its first east coast screen on May 16. In some recent years, the early-May event film has outgrossed the late-May one like with last year's The Mummy Returns beating Pearl Harbor, 1998's Deep Impact outgunning Godzilla, and 1996's Twister surging ahead of Mission: Impossible. While Spider-Man is sure to fly high trying to reach the triple-century mark, its chances of beating the eventual tally of Clones are small. Repeat business will decide which pic will climb higher and Star Wars fans, even with the not-so-loved Episode I, have proven that collecting ticket stubs for their Jedi flicks is still a top priority. Regardless, the two will pack auditoriums to capacity in May and expose moviegoers to trailers and posters for the season's biggest films which in turn should help keep the momentum going through August.

Spider-Man's record-shattering opening came as a shock to most in the industry who never thought it was possible to gross so much in such a short time. Unfortunately for Fox, the bar has been raised for the George Lucas epic as expectations for Episode II have been greatly increased. Spider-Man gave fans what they wanted and offered something for both genders which helps its overall box office appeal. Attack of the Clones also mixes the action-adventure elements that guys love, with a romance that develops between the future Darth Vader and Senator Amidala. Despite the hokey love story, cheeseball romantic dialogue, and weak performance from Hayden Christensen, Episode II does truly deliver on the action front with dazzling battle scenes, amazing digital imagery, and intriguing story elements that allow the audience to continue the arc between this episode and the top-grossing installment - Episode IV.

With less Jar Jar, and more Yoda (including one soon-to-be-classic scene which will have fans lining up again once the credits roll), Episode II will please die-hard fans much more than Episode I did. With an eight-year-old Anakin Skywalker and new characters like Qui-Gon Jinn, it was hard for fans to link Phantom Menace to the previous trilogy that they know and love. Episode II delivers a story that is much closer to A New Hope and actually builds interest, which commercially should lead to more repeat business, especially from older Star Wars fans. Episode I debuted with an explosive $105.7M over its opening five-day frame and went on to drop only 20-30% each subsequent weekend. Later in its run, young kids remained the core audience as most of the business came from weekend matinee shows. Episode II should keep those younger fans locked in and extract more loyalty from the older fans.

Among the studios battling it out for bragging rights to the summer's market share crown, Sony and Fox look like the top seeds in this year's tournament. Sony has more ammo in its stockpile but Fox has two lethal weapons, Star Wars Episode II and Minority Report, which could tag-team and keep Rupert Murdoch smiling all the way until Labor Day. On the other hand, Sony boasts the season's most diverse line-up with Spider-Man kicking off the festivities followed by Jennifer Lopez's Enough, Adam Sandler hoping for a return to form in Mr. Deeds, Fourth of July fireworks with Men in Black 2, Stuart Little 2, and August heat with Vin Diesel's XXX. Warner Bros. also has a crowded lineup, but packs less heat. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Scooby Doo could provide June bucks appealing to different crowds while The Powerpuff Girls will test their appeal bowing head-to-head against MIB2.

Universal, which sizzled last year with the summer sequels American Pie 2, Jurassic Park 3, and The Mummy Returns, has nothing to clone this time and should see a more subdued season with releases like About A Boy with Hugh Grant (which already hit #1 at the U.K. box office) and The Bourne Identity starring Matt Damon being the highest profile of the slate. Paramount is putting its money on the star-driven action thrillers The Sum of All Fears, with Ben Affleck taking over Harrison Ford's role of Jack Ryan, and the submarine picture K-19: The Widowmaker which desperately hopes American moviegoers will buy Ford speaking with a Russian accent. The folks at Disney have their usual pairing of a Jerry Bruckheimer action flick and a Walt Disney animated pic with Bad Company starring Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins and Lilo and Stitch. It ends the summer with M. Night Shyamalan's Signs with Mel Gibson which is looking to become a spooky late-summer blockbuster.

With school children on summer vacation, the season is jam packed with kidpics from beginning to end as studios offer a whole batch of family films with built-in audiences. None of the entries are expected to cast as large a shadow as last summer's behemoth Shrek, but a few will take a shot at reaching blockbuster status. The animation wars heat up again as DreamWorks once again tests the waters early with the Memorial Day weekend opener Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron which bows four weeks ahead of Disney's summer toon Lilo & Stitch. Other animated films joining the party include Paramount's Hey Arnold: The Movie on June 28 and Sony's The Powerpuff Girls just five days later. Meanwhile Warner Bros. tries to launch a new franchise with the live-action adaptation of Scooby Doo which stars box office poison Freddie Prinze Jr. with Sarah Michelle Gellar and Matthew Lillard. The studio is hoping that this old-cartoon-turned-summer-film performs more like George of the Jungle and less like The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Sequels like Stuart Little 2 and Spy Kids 2 will bring in the family dollars in the second half of summer.

No summer would be complete without its share of interesting box office showdowns. This season's most compelling battle may take place on the weekend of August 2nd when Buena Vista's Signs opens opposite Sony's XXX. With dependable talent like Gibson and Shyamalan, Signs is sure to take a big piece of the pie, especially with mature adults, but Vin Diesel, fresh off the success of last summer's sleeper smash The Fast and the Furious, will pull in teens and twentysomethings with his rebel action appeal. Both will have to deal with the second weekend of comedy giant Austin Powers though. Overall, the promising titles are sure to expand the box office in the final month of the season.

The summer's two main holiday frames will also see some heated competition. Memorial Day weekend, formerly the launching pad for the first event films of the season, will host the debut of the adult thrillers Enough, which will skew female, and Insomnia which will skew male. Kids will be offered the animated tale Stallion, however the combination of traditional animation and drama does not bode well for its commercial prospects. Having Star Wars and Spider-Man in the marketplace will not help either. Independence Day weekend sees the return of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black 2 which Sony will be backing with a lavish marketing campaign. Other studios believe they can distract youngsters as Warner Bros. goes female with The Powerpuff Girls while Fox aims for boys with Like Mike starring rapper Lil' Bow Wow. Both films will have their hands full taking on MIB2 which will take advantage of the extra time off ticket buyers have and bring in all demographics.

With Peter Parker giving the box office a healthy headstart, cash registers will continue their ringing for the next four months. A long list of high-profile films will keep traffic busy at cinemas this summer and a new record performance, for both grosses and admissions, may just result. Studios will keep their fingers crossed this time and hope that this season's lineup will have better legs than last summer's. And with fourth-quarter franchise muscle from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and the James Bond film Die Another Day, 2002 is on a steady course to become the biggest year at the box office ever.

Summer 2002 Release Schedule (dates subject to change)