Summer Sunshine Hasn't Shined Too Brightly On Hollywood

Have you noticed how awful most of the latest movies are? Blame the late-summer blues caused by two of Hollywood's worst habits.

Bad Habit No. 1: glutting the distribution circuit with more films than it can efficiently handle.

This means blatant flops vanish quickly, which is all to the good. But on the downside, slow-building pictures with subtle themes or low-key styles get pushed off multiplex screens before audiences have a chance to spread the word-of-mouth buzz that often determines a movie's long-term success.

Bad Habit No. 2: relying on a handful of would-be blockbusters to pile up profits, giving only lukewarm support to more substantial or challenging pictures.

It pays for a studio to sink most of its resources into a limited number of projects if the result is a ''Jurassic Park'' that dwarfs nearly everything else in sight. But this year the hoped-for hits are turning in less-than-dazzling performances, with even the popular ''Pocahontas'' doing only half the business generated by ''The Lion King'' last year, according to Variety, the show-business trade paper.

This cedes extra attention to attractions with more modest ambitions, from dramas like ''Dangerous Minds'' to comedies like ''Nine Months,'' not to mention the usual crop of summer sequels - and when these prove also-rans in every sense of the word, moviegoing morale quickly drops.

But the current season is not devoid of success stories. While there's no ''Lion King'' or ''Forrest Gump'' to prime the box-office pump, pictures like the patriotic ''Apollo 13'' and the lively ''Casper'' are shining more brightly than observers expected.

But big-name losers like ''First Knight'' and ''Judge Dredd'' weigh heavily on Hollywood's ledger sheets, and few predict that more recent arrivals like the high-tech ''Virtuosity'' and the low-tech ''Baby-Sitters Club'' will decisively turn the tide.

If the summer does pinch studios badly, it will be the studios' own fault for not recognizing the shortcomings of their releasing practices. Not so many years ago, late summer was a dead spot in Hollywood's calendar. Studios opened their aspiring blockbusters by mid-July or so, hoping to capitalize on them for weeks or months to come, and held their ''serious'' pictures until after Labor Day, when ticket-buyers presumably tire of the comedies and fantasies they've been fed during the warm-weather season.

That pattern changed when distributors realized they could exploit the relative calm of the pre-Labor Day period, using it to open movies that might benefit from a lack of heavy competition. If early summer was prime time for Hollywood's most promising pictures, middle and late summer became dumping grounds for their less-felicitous cousins - including poorly produced films expected to do little more than fill up screens vacated by major movies that had exhausted their welcome.

Other factors also play a part in the warm-weather doldrums. One is the studios' need to pull out all their promotional stops when big money is at stake - as with ''Waterworld,'' now struggling to recoup its production cost of nearly $200 million - even if this means neglecting smaller films that could use major advertising blitzes of their own.

Another is the fact that pictures scheduled for fall and winter may not be finished in time to replace films that faltered weeks earlier.

Still, many industry-watchers regard the sheer overload of releases as the studios' worst enemy, reducing the profitability of even the biggest hits.

Some disagree with this analysis, arguing that a couple of runaway successes can boost the momentum of moviegoing as a leisure activity in and of itself, helping rather than hurting the prospects of all but the most ill-starred contenders.

While different seasons offer different sets of statistics to support one or the other of these arguments, this year's situation spells out the bottom line where cinematic merits are concerned: Summer has become a time when quantity outshines quality, as Hollywood scrambles to market the largest possible number of feature-length commodities.

It's not surprising that even the movie studios' own interests often get lost in this money-driven shuffle.

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