Studios gambled this summer with movies like ''Men in Black'' and ''George of the Jungle,'' and while some succeeded, others disappointed

Eighty million dollars on a bunch of digitalized dinos. Eighty-seven million on hijacking the President’s jet. A hundred million on a guy in a black rubber mask. Altogether, Hollywood spent close to two billion dollars this summer — and that’s not even including Sly Stallone’s KFC tab.

It was the season of the Event Movie, with summer-movie budgets on nearly a dozen films reportedly hovering around the $100 million mark. From action pictures ($80 million for Con Air) to kiddie flicks ($85 million for Hercules) and sequels ($145 million for Speed 2), the studios embarked on their wildest spending spree ever. Even the stingy indies emptied their wall safes, with Miramax shelling out almost $30 million for Stallone’s pudgy police drama Cop Land.

Did the Event Movie strategy pay off? Or have the last four months proved only that the bigger they are, the harder they flop? To answer these questions, we counted the receipts and crunched the numbers for the films that opened between May 2 and August 15. Below, the lessons of summer ’97…

LESSON NO. 1: Word of mouth works better than hype. Take Batman & Robin, which opened June 20 with the usual marketing blitz (a Taco Bell tie-in, a Batmobile giveaway, a theme-park ride at Warner Bros.-owned Six Flags). The film did well its first weekend ($43 million) but quickly fell flatter than Ah-nold’s one-liners, thanks to dreadful reviews and rotten audience reactions. It has earned only $106 million, making it the worst grosser of the series so far.

Now take TriStar’s My Best Friend’s Wedding, the $40 million Julia Roberts romantic comedy that also opened June 20. It made only $21 million that first weekend, but good notices and word of mouth kept the reception going. It’s grossed $118 million to date, making it Roberts’ biggest hit since Pretty Woman — and making Roberts the only actress with five $100 million-plus films on her resume (six if Conspiracy Theory picks up steam; it’s made $53 million so far).

Of course, Lesson No. 1 has exceptions: Sometimes the hype does help. Take Universal’s Lost World, which became the summer’s second-biggest hit, earning $227 million, despite a script so silly even the raptors were snickering. Still, Lost World didn’t do nearly as well as Jurassic Park, which leads to LESSON NO. 2: Not every movie is more wonderful the second (or third or fourth) time around.

The old rule in Hollywood is that sequels usually earn two thirds the business of originals. If anything, this summer showed that the math could be even crueler. Fox’s first Speed flick, for instance, earned $121 million; Speed 2: Cruise Control, which cost more than that, grossed only $47 million. And Warner’s Free Willy 3 has grossed a mere $3 million (the first made $78 million, the second $30 million). In some cases, foreign sales will help cushion the blows (Batman & Robin has already made $108 million overseas), but let’s be honest, don’t expect Speed 3. Even Batman 5 seems a bit iffy at this point.

George of the Jungle
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