MediaCircus' Winners & Sinners: July 2001
Special Feature by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2001
It seems that the slowing economy has finally caught up with Hollywood. After some terrific momentum in the first half of the year, ticket sales ran into a slump at what should ostensibly be one of the busiest times of the year. Falling shy of last year's total weekend take of $567 million, July's lackluster ticket sales have reduced the year-to-date box office totals to only a mere 4% above the same time last year. In comparison, prior to hitting July, the incremental increase was a more comfortable 10%, especially in light of the fact that the average theater admission had also gone up about $1 US in the same time-frame. So what happened to the days of milk and honey?
In addition to consumers being tight-fisted with their disposable income these days, industry pundits have pointed to lack of staying power for new releases. If you have been following box office tallies this year, you will probably have noticed that since the summer moviegoing season began in May, no film has been able to hold the top position for more than two weeks, and the only films that managed to stay on top for more than one weekend were "The Mummy Returns" and "Pearl Harbor". Unfortunately, this summer's crop of films are 'burning off' very quickly, generating little in the way of repeat business and seeing their grosses drop by 50% or more on subsequent weekends. Some of the biggest casualties of this year's 'burn off' include "Tomb Raider", "A.I.", "The Fast and the Furious", and, of course, "Pearl Harbor". In fact, the only films to show any 'legs' have been "Shrek" and "The Mummy Returns", which have been able to surpass the $200 million mark because of this.
And this is not a new problem, as studios have been concerned about this problem for the last few years, which has become progressively worse with time. Over the past decade, the average playing life for films has shrunk, with virtually all demand for a film being met within the first few weeks of its release. For example, in 1990, opening week grosses accounted for 24% of total theatrical grosses, and now it is up to 37% (which is also a quick way for studio execs to estimate the final box office take of a film).
Blame for this phenomenon has been assigned to a glut of screens in the marketplace, the result of a building boom by the major exhibition chains, such as AMC Entertainment and the United Artists Theatre Group. This excess of exhibition outlets means that audiences don't have to wait for the long line-ups to subside before seeing the latest releases. This is being further compounded by the increasing practice of wide release patterns (a film is opened in 4,000 to 5,000 screens at once), which has resulted in the number of films exceeding 2,000 simultaneous playdates tripling between 1993 and 1997.
Despite the meager returns at the box office, the month of July offered up many surprisingly decent films that were able to overcome their respective handicaps and deliver a good time. For example, "Jurassic Park III" was able to overcome being 'another sequel', "America's Sweethearts" was able to surmount being 'another Julia Roberts romantic comedy', "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" was able to ease the stigma of being 'another video-game-to-movie translation', and "Kiss of the Dragon" was able to provide a satisfactory answer to, 'is Jet Li still making movies?'. So without further ado, this month's winners:
- America's Sweethearts: Those expecting "America's Sweethearts" to be just another tired romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts ("Notting Hill" anyone?) are in for a treat. Under the assured comic direction of producer-turned-director Joe Roth and working from a droll script co-written by stand-up comedian-turned-actor Billy Crystal ("The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle"), "America's Sweethearts" is a ruthlessly-funny satire of movie marketing-gone-awry in Hollywood. And backed up by an all-star cast that includes Crystal, Roberts, John Cusack ("High Fidelity"), and Catherine Zeta-Jones ("Traffic"), you have what may be the most memorable romantic comedy since "Bridget Jones's Diary".
- Jurassic Park III: In 1997's "The Lost World", Jeff Goldblum's character remarks "Oooh! Ahhh! That's how it always starts. Then later there's running and screaming." However, in the case of the latest entry in Steven Spielberg's multi-million dollar dinosaur franchise, "Jurassic Park III" skips the 'ooohing' and 'ahhhing' and gets right into the 'running and screaming'. Gone are the debates of control vs. chaos or man vs. nature (or any sort of conflict between the human characters for that matter), and in their stead is one big long chase à la "Speed". It may not offer much in terms of originality or story, but it is still a fast-paced and fun thrill ride that doesn't wear out its welcome.
- The Score: Though "The Score" fits firmly in the 'heist gone awry' mode, it fortunately avoids the mistakes of other recent entries of the genre, such as "3000 Miles to Graceland", which combined dumb action with even dumber plot mechanics. Instead, this sharp and intelligent thriller from former comedy director Frank Oz ("Bowfinger") benefits from a clever script that subtly ratchets up the tension and the audience's involvement with its characters. Furthermore, it scores big with a casting coup that features three iconic actors representing three generations of Hollywood stardom: veteran Marlon Brando, the infinitely-watchable Robert De Niro, and rising star Edward Norton.
- Legally Blonde: It is often said that 'blondes have more fun', which is the case with "Legally Blonde", a cute comedy where a "Clueless" coed who follows her stuck-up boyfriend to law school after being dumped for being too ditzy and not ritzy. The main reason why this film works is the luminosity of lead actress Reese Witherspoon ("Election"), who effortlessly exudes charisma, brilliance, and panache with her sarcastic yet sympathetic portrayal of a 'dumb blonde'. So far, "Legally Blonde" has defied the expectations of both box office pundits and MGM Studios, and this likable comedy will probably end up defying your expectations too.
- Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within: The box office take may have been disappointing, but "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" is still the most satisfying video game-to-movie adaptation to date, as it successfully brings the long-running game series' visual and storytelling flair to the big screen. True, the script may be derivative and the dialogue may lapse into melodrama from time to time, but with uncanny state-of-the-art computer animation (that even puts the recent "Shrek" to shame), top-drawer voice talent (including Ming-na, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Buscemi), and a decent story, veteran video game producer Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team at Square Pictures have crafted a truly landmark film.
- Kiss of the Dragon: FROM NOW ON, THIS IS HOW YOU MAKE A JET LI MOVIE! The plot may have a few holes and Jet Li's acting may falter from time to time, but for an exhilarating guilty pleasure experience that also hits a few surprising emotional notes, "Kiss of the Dragon" delivers. It seems that the martial arts master has found a filmmaker, Luc Besson, who can channel his strengths (kicking butt) and pare down his weaknesses (acting) into a slam-bang action vehicle, making what is probably Li's best film since his "Fist of Legend" from 1994. Let's hope that this marks the beginning of a new phase in Li's career, as well as the start of a long and productive collaboration between these two cinematic icons from opposite ends of the world.
Thankfully, the list of sinners this past month was short:
- Planet of the Apes: Now that the new "Planet of the Apes" film has finally landed in theaters, was it worth the long and interminable wait? Sadly... no. Unfortunately, this pale 're-imagining' will probably not be remembered for much of anything, other than the special effects. Conceived as a moneymaking vehicle to pander to popcorn-loving audiences, executed with some poorly-developed ideas, and without anything meaningful to say, this "Planet of the Apes" is a forgettable trip down memory lane.
- Scary Movie 2: When the "Scream" parody "Scary Movie" was unleashed in theaters last year, the tagline boasted "No mercy. No shame. No sequel." Unfortunately, that was before the Wayans Brothers so-called 'comedy' brought in $260 million at the box office. Sensing more money to be made, the studio heads at Miramax greenlit the sequel, which was rushed through production and barely finished in time for this week's release. Unfortunately, in addition to being an unnecessary sequel, "Scary Movie 2" ends up being a stupid movie too, even more so than the first.
- Cats & Dogs: WHO LET THIS DOG OUT?
For the remainder of the 2001 summer moviegoing season, movie buffs can look forward to Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker paired with Chinese cinema 'It girl' Zhang Ziyi ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") in "Rush Hour 2", Nicole Kidman ("Moulin Rouge") in the atmospheric gothic horror flick "The Others", Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz in the WW2 romance "Captain Corelli's Mandolin", horror-meister John Carpenter's "The Ghosts of Mars", Angelina Jolie's lips in "Original Sin", and über-slackers Jay and Silent Bob heading to Hollywood in Kevin Smith's "Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back". Will the box office bounce back during the close of the summer holiday season? Stay tuned...
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