LOS ANGELES — HERE'S one for you: Americans have shelled out about as much money to watch movies so far this summer ($1.6 billion) as the gross national product of Rwanda ($1.8 billion).
That may say something about the penury of the strife-torn African nation, but it also says something about the prosperity of Hollywood.
The movie industry is poised to set a record at the box office for the second summer in a row. It has just come through its fifth straight weekend of $100-million-plus business, a first.
Moreover, a prolonged baseball strike could put more people in theater seats in the next few months, with canola-oil popcorn, not peanuts, in hand.
``It has been one of the most competitive, and is looking to be one of the most successful, summers in history,'' says Barry London, president of Paramount Pictures worldwide distribution.
Yet there has also been famine amid the feast. For every Forrest Gump ($165 million and counting), there has been a Wyatt Earp ($24 million and barely counting).
It has been a season of boom or bust. There have been few middle-range films - ones that gross $40 million to $80 million - which are often good money earners for the industry.
Big hits bunch up
``The pictures that worked really worked well,'' says Bruce Feldman, a senior vice president of Universal Pictures. ``They didn't leave a lot of room for pictures a notch or two below.''
The reason is partly the number of pictures released over the summer. The period from Memorial Day to Labor Day, which accounts for about 40 percent of the annual box-office business, is the time Hollywood sleeves in many of its biggest pictures, rather than spreading them out in less competitive slots like spring and fall.
Thus the big hits siphon off most of the movie-going audience. If a popular film is opening week after week, people never get a chance to see their second- or third-choice movies.
The situation has been exacerbated by the way films are displayed and distributed. In an era of multiplex theaters, big hits are now shown on several screens. Thus people who want to see their first choice usually can. They often couldn't in the past.
The result, analysts say, is that the pictures doing average business are getting pushed down the marquee and out the door quicker.
Yet, when there is a cluster of big hits, like this summer's, that can mean Good & Plenty profits. So far five films have already grossed more than $100 million this summer (``Forrest Gump,'' ``The Lion King,'' ``The Flintstones,'' ``Speed,'' and ``True Lies'') versus two at this time last year (``The Firm'' and the megahit ``Jurassic Park'').
Several others could pierce the magical barrier before summer's end, including ``The Mask'' and ``Clear and Present Danger.''
All this means that, for the summer, the industry will probably take in more than the $2.1 billion it did last year. Whether it will beat 1993's year-end total of $5.15 billion, also a record, will depend on the other big release period, Thanksgiving to Christmas.
The uptick so far reflects increased attendance at the box office rather than higher ticket prices, since the cost of movies has remained relatively stable.
``There is suddenly a clutch of movies that audiences are finding very satisfying as entertainment,'' says Leonard Klady, box office analyst for the trade publication Daily Variety.
Big flops also ran
None of this is to downplay the pinch of the season's big flops. Among the disappointments for studios has been then well-hyped sequels ``City Slickers II'' and ``Beverly Hills Cop III,'' as well as several from a glut of family films, such as ``Little Big League'' and ``Baby's Day Out.''
Other underachievers: ``I Love Trouble'' with Julia Roberts, Penny Marshall's ``Renaissance Man,'' and Rob Reiner's comedy ``North.''
Hollywood will be looking through the gold and dross for lessons, which means, among other things, you can expect someone on the big screen in the near future mumbling a variation of the Gump mantra, ``Stupid is as stupid does.''