David Hochman
September 11, 1998 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Remember that delicious powerball fantasy you dreamed up earlier this summer? How much would it have taken to quit your job and book that trip to the Seychelles — $250 million? $100 million? Face it, you’d have danced the lambada for a couple of twenties and some quarters for the laundry.

If only it were that easy to satisfy Hollywood. The good news is that a record nine of the summer’s top movies have already pushed past the $100 million mark. The bad news is eight of those nine films (all but the bargain-basement blockbuster There’s Something About Mary) cost at least $80 million to make and market. In short, the old gauges of box office triumph have come unsprung. In an era when Titanic can gross $600 million, ”you can’t use the $100 million figure as a sign of success anymore,” says Larry Gleason, MGM’s distribution president. ”It just doesn’t mean anything on its own.”

Mary was an exception to this summer’s rules in ways other than its low cost; it was one of the few films driven by grassroots audience reaction rather than by marketing, rising from fourth place in its first week to second place in its seventh. And it may have been the season’s only old-fashioned major-studio smash — the kind that returns a profit before overseas revenues and video sales kick in. But what’s troubling is that movies that would have looked like blockbusters a few years back — Godzilla, Lethal Weapon 4, even Armageddon — suffered from overblown budgets, poor reviews, and a widespread media-fueled perception that pre-summer expectations weren’t being met. ”I’m not proclaiming success on the bottom line, but it’s nice to have the market share,” says Buena Vista distribution president Phil Barlow, which is his way of noting that the biggest movie of the summer, Armageddon, is now the 27th-highest domestic grosser of all time — and given that less than half of that money is typically returned to the studio, that’s still not enough to make a huge profit.

So what worked? ”The ‘big’ films this summer weren’t the ones people wound up talking about,” says Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Bill Mechanic. Instead, people were buzzing about the surprises. Nobody ever expected a solemn, R-rated, nearly three-hour combat film — even one directed by Steven Spielberg — to approach $200 million. Nobody picked Dr. Dolittle to talk its way past Godzilla, or guessed that a risky, high-minded project like The Truman Show would wind up one of the top 100 grossers ever. And who’d have predicted that testicle jokes and the sight of a yappy dog in a body cast could turn a $24 million gas-terpiece like There’s Something About Mary into the party of the year?

”The industry went a whole other way this summer,” says Amy Pascal, president of Columbia Pictures. ”In the past, we’d depend on explosions and dinosaurs and an audience of young males to get us through Labor Day. This summer, people wanted something else. They wanted to laugh in ways they haven’t laughed before, feel emotional in ways they haven’t felt before, and think in ways they haven’t thought before. It’s exceptional for the movie business.” In fact, the success of atypical summer fare like Truman, Ryan, and Mary may have put a dent in independent films as traditional summer counterprogramming. The season’s highest-grossing new indie, at $5.7 million, was The Opposite of Sex, and even that got outgunned by the rerelease of Gone With the Wind.

Which may be why the studios seem to be celebratory in spite of themselves. As Labor Day rolls around, more than $2.5 billion in movie tickets will have sold since Memorial Day (another record; last year’s take was $2.2 billion). True, there wasn’t a Men in Black or Independence Day (some advice to the studios: If you’re going to overpay someone, overpay Will Smith). But execs with steady nerves say there’s no reason to panic. ”The industry’s not in shock because we didn’t have a $300 million movie this summer,” says Tom Sherak, senior executive VP at Fox Filmed Entertainment. ”I’ll take a lot of $100 million movies over one big $500 million movie any day.” As long as those movies don’t cost $200 million to make.

WINNERS
Armageddon
Projection: $200 million
Disney overspent wildly (close to $200 million with marketing) but wound up with summer’s top grosser, and it’s already at $150 million — and soaring — overseas. We’ll toss in another $50 million if they promise not to make a sequel.

Deep Impact
Projection: $141 million
Mimi Leder’s comet-hits-earth flick, made for a relatively cheap $80 million, took in $320 million worldwide; the Paramount/DreamWorks coproduction is the biggest hit ever directed by a woman.

Saving Private Ryan
Projection: $190-200 million
The $65 million smash is the first Oscar contender for DreamWorks (which coproduced with Paramount) — but with Spielberg and Hanks taking huge cuts, it’s not the quick fix the studio needs.

There’s Something About Mary
Projection: $150-160 million
Made for just $24 million, the spunky comedy, the first word-of-mouth smash since Scream, made stars of Cameron Diaz and the Farrellys, and gave Fox this summer’s most profitable film.

Armageddon
Paramount’s Truman Show was even bigger than Jim Carrey’s Mask and Ace films; Eddie Murphy scored with both Disney’s Mulan and Fox’s Dr. Dolittle; Miramax’s $17 million Halloween: H20 proved that cheap thrills can yield solid profits.

LOSERS
The Avengers
Projection: $25 million
Summer’s noisiest (and, at $65 million before marketing, costliest) bomb was another embarrassment for recently flop-plagued Warner. Who greenlighted this — and did they read the script first?

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
Projection: $11 million
They said Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo-journalism classic was unfilmable. They were right.

Bullworth
Projection: $27 million
Writer-director-producer-star Warren Beatty’s attempt to woo the hip-hop crowd with a mix of rap and politics scared older moviegoers away and left younger ones indifferent.

Mafia!
Projection: $19-20 million
Wrongfully Accused
Projection: $10-12 million
In a summer when hits from Armageddon to Halloween: H20 seemed to be winking at themselves, out-and-out movie parodies were dead in the water — especially with targets as stale as The Godfather and The Fugitive.

Hall of Shame
MGM’s Disturbing Behavior proved teens know a Scream rip-off when they (don’t) see one; Universal’s BASEketball showed that South Park‘s creators are many things, but not movie stars; Warner’s $60 million Quest for Camelot illustrated that ‘toons can be a money pit too.

Toss-Ups
Lethal Weapon 4
Projection: $135-140 million
Warner insists that robust overseas returns, a big TV sale, and a probable hot video will make LW4 a solid hit — but aren’t there better ways to spend $170 million than to produce and market one last chapter of a tired franchise?

Godzilla
Projection: $136 million
Sony’s $120 million B movie turned out to be the blockbuster that wasn’t. At $140 million (and counting) abroad, it’s no disgrace, but it’s also no franchise — and Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich are still smarting from those reviews.

The X-Files
Projection: $84 million
Mulder and Scully’s film debut performed like a sequel: big opening, fast drop. Nonfans stayed away, but there are enough X-Philes for another installment.

Out of Sight
Projection: $38 million
A loser for hit-starved Universal, but a winner for its well-reviewed cast and indie king Steven Soderbergh, who moved gracefully into the mainstream.

Down the Middle
The bottom line would be brighter for Disney’s Six Days, Seven Nights and Sony’s Mask of Zorro if they hadn’t cost $70 million each; Fox’s Hope Floats gently aided Sandra Bullock’s post-Speed 2 rehab; The Parent Trap did well, but what did Disney spend that $55 million budget on?

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