After taking May and June by storm and hitting the Fourth with a bang, the summer movie season ends with a whimper

It was a season that began with a spectacular natural disaster — the landscape-shredding tornadoes of Jan De Bont’s Twister — and ended with a spectacular man-made disaster — the career-shredding camp delight The Island of Dr. Moreau. And between those gargantuan bookends, one of the strangest, least predictable moviegoing summers in years unfolded before an audience that started out enthralled and ended up bored silly. Demi Moore took it all off, and audiences yawned. Eddie Murphy hid under pounds of latex, and they cheered. Matthew McConaughey and Gwyneth Paltrow were treated like movie stars, while Jim Carrey and Robert De Niro were snubbed like has-beens. And four Michael Keatons in a comedy proved a lot less appealing than one Michael Keaton in a cowl.

In a summer during which TV’s Olympics coverage held the movie industry hostage for three weeks, the appropriate sports metaphor may be this: Beautiful vault, but — oh, no! — Hollywood just couldn’t stick that landing. May and June offered one smash after another. Twister jump-started the blowout on May 10; Tom Cruise’s customized Mission: Impossible dominated Memorial Day weekend; the Alcatraz action thriller The Rock broke out in June; and Independence Day, at this writing the seventh-highest-grossing film in U.S. history, set off fireworks during the long Fourth of July weekend. Add the Roman numerals II to those four titles, and you may have a very early peek at 1998’s summer-movie lineup.

But by the end of July, the hit parade had passed by. In one week, the studios unleashed a flurry of duds that hit the mat with more painful thuds than Kerri Strug did: The Frighteners, Fled, Multiplicity, and Kazaam. Even their titles make you wince. And since then…well, we don’t want to bring up memories that must be as unpleasant for Hollywood as they are for us. Perhaps it’s enough to note that if you ventured to your local multiplex to see The Fan or Bordello of Blood or Alaska or Chain Reaction or (shame on you) Carpool, you probably didn’t have much trouble finding an empty seat.

”For a summer that started out with such a bang, tell me what happened,” Universal Pictures distribution chief Nikki Rocco says with a rueful laugh. Simple, answers Twentieth Century Fox executive Tom Sherak: ”The Olympics came along and brought whatever momentum there was in the marketplace close to a stop.”

”A screeching halt,” adds Buena Vista Pictures distribution exec Phil Barlow.

But others say that the Atlanta Games are nothing more than a convenient scapegoat for an industry that just didn’t deliver. ”There was plenty of time to watch the Olympics and still see a movie,” admits New Line distribution president Mitch Goldman. ”Twister or Mission: Impossible would have been monster hits even if they’d opened against the Olympics. But most of the studios led with their strengths when summer opened, and what was left over was mostly fluff.” So as fall approaches, movie execs are licking their wounds, planning for next year, and awaiting their report card. How’d they do?