A new summer record; Box office is booming -- but what are audiences seeing?

The movies aren't better than ever, but nobody seems to mind. After 30 months -- count 'em -- of doldrums and bad news, the box office is boffo again. Between the beginning of July and the middle of August, spectators bought some 181 million tickets, according to figures assembled by A. D. Murphy of the showbusiness newspaper Variety. This summer will set a new record for the warm-weather season, and the total take for 1981 could hit an all-time high of nearly $3 billion.

What are people rushing to see? No surprises. As usual, the biggest hits are way in the lead, pulling in a disproportionate share of the audience. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Superman II" -- in that order -- account for nearly 25 percent of the box-office total. Next come "Stripes" and "Four Your Eyes Only," followed by "Escape from New York" and "Arthur." Add them up, and these six turn out to be earning almost half the dollars spent at the movies these days.

Other top midsummer films include "Tarzan the Ape Man," "Blow Out," "Endless Love," "The Great Muppet Caper," "S.O.B.," and "The Cannonball Run." Farther down the line but still healthy are "The Fox and the Hound," the revival of "The Empire Strikes Back," and "Wolfen."

Naturally, many of these moneymakers are outright junk. "Stripes" is a sleazy farce about a loser who joins the Army, yet the film is making millions on the strength of Bill Murray's name and current tastes. "Tarzan the Ape Man" and "Endless Love" are disasters on almost every level, yet there's apparently no defense against the drawing power of Bo Derek and Brooke Shields, respectively.

Even the well-made entries -- "Raiders," "Superman," the James Bond flick -- attest the pure escapism that still dominates the Hollywood scene. Ditto for the comical "Arthur," the sci-fi "Escape from New York," the wretched "Cannonball Run," and the latest Muppet movie, a G-rated surprise with fun for all ages.

The big question is: Can the studios sustain their winning streak without offering, sooner or later, more substantial stuff? Or do audiences insist on flimsy fare nowadays, to be consumed and forgotten like a box of buttered popcorn?

We may soon find out. For one thing, box-office figures have begun to level off lately. For another, Hollywood is about to launch a few unwontedly serious pictures in the fall and winter seasons. Warren Beatty's massive "Reds," Arthur Penn's "Four Friends," Francis Coppola's "One From the Heart," and Milos Forman's "Ragtime" are among them, not to mention a major reissue of Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon," a lavish and literary film if ever there was one. Will viewers sit still for so many hours of what promises to be genuine cinema?

Early signs are encouraging. Sidney Lumet's "Prince of the City" has opened strongly, despite its fiercely realistic theme of police corruption, its surprisingly complex treatment of social issues, and its long running time of nearly three hours. While it's no masterpiece, it seems to be drawing crowds who want more than another trip to fantasyland. Escapism reigns in 1981, but not exclusively. The movies are pulling in plenty of profits, and there's still a chance some of that money will be ploughed into projects of more than momentary interest.

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