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''The Phantom Menace'' boosts the summer box office

Despite the ”Star Wars” juggernaut, ”Wild Wild West,” ”Tarzan,” and other blockbusters broke the bank

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Hollywood’s marketing executives are such irrepressible cheerleaders that they can turn nearly any movie debut into a stop-the-presses news event. (Flash! The General’s Daughter is John Travolta’s biggest nonholiday, nonsequel, political-thriller, mid-June, under-a-full-moon opening…EVER!) But lately they’ve been able to keep their spin machines in low gear. That’s because the unvarnished facts and figures from the summer box office have been hyperbolic enough. The Phantom Menace: biggest five-day opening ever ($105.7 million)! Austin Powers: biggest comedy opening ever ($54.9 million)! Notting Hill: biggest romantic-comedy opening ever ($22.7 million)!

And here’s another one: Halfway through the season, the combined grosses of all summer films have hit $1.7 billion, well on pace to break last year’s record of $2.58 billion. Most impressive is how widely the wealth’s been spread. The weekend of June 18 marked the first time three films grossed more than $20 million (Tarzan, Austin Powers, and The General’s Daughter). And there are already six movies that have topped $100 million, with two others (Wild Wild West, General’s Daughter) likely to join them. At this point last year, only three summer flicks had reached the century mark (Deep Impact, Godzilla, and The Truman Show). ”It’s been an amazing summer,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office-tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. ”We’re seeing the audience actually expanding in reaction to all these big films.”

Remarkably, this boom flies in the face of the preseason doom-and-gloom predictions of a number of analysts, who expected Star Wars mania to siphon off business elsewhere. So how to account for this sudden cinematic bull market?

THE PHANTOM THREAT
Other studios steered clear of its release date. Exhibitors set aside their biggest theaters for the whole summer for it. Licensees refused to commit to other properties because of it. Of course, ”it” — better known as The Phantom Menace — arrived and certainly made its mark. But rather than squelch the competition, the power of the Force was shared with other films. Notting Hill and Austin Powers opened within weeks of Menace and drew record crowds. ”The fear was that if Star Wars dominates, there wasn’t going to be enough audience left over to bring up the rest of the box office,” says Dergarabedian. ”The opposite has happened.” Indeed, the hysteria over Menace seemed to stimulate moviegoing interest in general. And overflow crowds from Phantom had to go somewhere, so it was a good thing there was plenty of…

…PLEX APPEAL
Many execs point out that 2,000-plus new screens, most of them part of plush multiplexes, opened nationwide in the last year. ”The expansion in the exhibition community has given people more and more opportunity to see the big films that they want,” says Bob Levin, president of worldwide marketing for Columbia TriStar. ”If you look at where the grosses are, they’re in these big 20-screen megaplexes.” Unfortunately for Hollywood, this could be the last year it sees such a sales boost: After years of expansion, the big theater chains are finally scaling back future construction.