Summer movies melt faster than ice cream

Even though more people say there's nothing to see, Hollywood is making more money than ever.

This summer, movies have the life cycle of a flare. They open spectacularly, setting all sorts of arcane records ("best nonholiday opening for an 'R' comedy ever!"). The next week, they fizzle just as dramatically, as audiences line up for next "big event."

This trend is not so much the result of fickle audiences as a marketing strategy that floods a film onto more than 3,000 screens the first weekend, so that a studio can make lots of money before poor word of mouth and bad reviews scare moviegoers away. The result is that theater marquees are changing faster than airport-departure monitors.

More important, it's set up an unusual cultural dichotomy: More people say there's nothing they want to see, but Hollywood is making more money than ever. In fact, this weekend it expects to break the summer box-office record of $3 billion.

"A few years ago, a film would open and get sold out, and people would have to come back on the second and third weekend. Nowadays, with so many theaters and so many screens, anybody who wants a ticket on opening weekend can get in," says boxofficeguru.com analyst Gitesh Pandya. "They're opening bigger than ever, but now they're falling bigger than ever."

For studios, the "far-and-wide" release approach makes economic sense. Not only are they able to rake in more cash up front, but many contractual arrangements with theater owners allot them a larger percentage of first-week profits than in subsequent weeks of release.

With record receipts, you'd think there would be record customer satisfaction. "I don't think there was a single, what I would call 'classic,' summer film that came out this year," says Harry Knowles of the movie site aintitcoolnews.com. "This was a moviegoing summer where the moviegoers continued to go in the hopes of trying to find something great [and] never really [found] it."

Take dotcom executive Kevin Plunkett. "To be honest, this is probably the first year I've not seen a ton of movies in the summertime," he says on his way to see "American Pie 2" at Boston's Fenway 13. "There isn't enough out there that you're really dying to see," chips in his blond companion, Donna Tracy.

With more people seeing the same movie at once, poor word of mouth has spread faster. Overall attendance figures this summer are at their lowest in five years, according to Variety magazine. That's not reflected in theater receipts, because the price of tickets are as high as $10 in some cities.

One reason Hollywood has so successfully implemented the "front-loading" strategy is the multiplex building boom of the late 1990s, when hundreds of screens went up from Bismarck, N.D., to Boca Raton, Fla.

Nearly all the major releases have debuted on more than 3,000 screens this summer, up from just one movie, "Mission: Impossible," in 1996. No fewer than nine, including "Pearl Harbor," "Planet of the Apes," and "Rush Hour 2," have opened with hauls above $40 million - only to be ousted by another massively marketed movie the following weekend. Case in point: "Jurassic Park III," which opened on 5,000 screens and grossed $50 million its first week. The dinosaurs may have proved a little long in the tooth for audiences, 56 percent fewer of whom showed up the next week, but that still left the movie with a tally above $20 million. The result: After five weeks, it has raked in $168 million - making it a bona fide blockbuster.

Not coincidentally, all these films have received less than Oscar-worthy reviews. "It's been pretty much one disappointment after another. But people seem to fall for the hype week after week," says Kevin Lally, editor of Film Journal International. He points out that this strategy works especially well during the summer, when teens are out of school. "Young people are easy to please and tend to fall prey to hype a little easier than older viewers."

But ask some teens which movies are their favorites of the summer, and their picks match up pretty well with the critics'. "I've seen 'Memento' twice," high-schooler Eric Weiss says of the acclaimed film noir, which was released this winter but is still in theaters. Eric is also full of praise for "The Score," starring Robert DeNiro, and "Apocalypse Now Redux."

His friends, Caitlin and Aiden, single out "Shrek." In fact, the only summer movie with legs wasn't "Lara Croft," but the green ogre. Not only did it avoid the second-week sinking, its receipts grew slightly. Repeat viewing, positive word of mouth, and crossover appeal have helped it gross $259 million to date. "It's an artfully done family film. If that had bombed, I might have taken some of my readers' advice and looked for a more congenial profession," says Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern.

Certainly, popcorn fare has been a staple of warm-weather months for years. The summer has belonged to teens since "Jaws" debuted 26 years ago. But critics are concerned that this summer's disposable movies are leaving out adult audiences hungry for more meaningful fare. "It's kind of a junk-food mentality," Mr. Lally says.

But with record grosses to count, studios have little reason to alter a winning business plan. Early word on next summer's lineup: more sequels like "Star Wars, Episode II" and "Men in Black 2" and action heroes like "Spiderman."

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