The fall box office report card: 'Soul Food' was delicious, Brad Pitt went nowhere, and 'The Full Monty' went all the way

This year, when Hollywood talks about its legends of the fall, it won’t be talking about Brad Pitt, Al Pacino, Michael Douglas, or Keanu Reeves. In a season of unpredictable upsets, a bunch of upstarts like Jennifer Love Hewitt, Vanessa L. Williams, and Robert Carlyle amazed the movie industry by upstaging A-list stars. As formula packages — especially high-concept thrillers with glossy leading men — fell by the wayside or failed to earn back their costs, some genuinely quirky movies emerged from the pack. This fall, the rules of the game were:

Thrillers Failed to Thrill

After a summer of big, less-than-awe-inspiring box office behemoths that sucked in audiences and then spit them out (everyone saw The Lost World: Jurassic Park, but did anybody talk about it afterward?), moviegoers were clearly hungry for something different. Overall, the post-Labor Day box office was up 12 percent over last year, as filmgoers dutifully sampled each new entry in turn. Michael Douglas’ puzzle-box thriller, The Game, bowed at $14.3 million, allowing PolyGram’s new distribution arm to boast that it could open a mainstream movie. Two weeks later, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen got DreamWorks SKG off to a running start with its first feature, The Peacemaker, which starred George Clooney and Nicole Kidman and came in at a respectable $12.3 million. Three weeks after that, The Devil’s Advocate, starring Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino as Satan in a lawyer’s suit, materialized at $12.2 million.

But the encouraging debuts proved misleading. The Game left some audiences feeling cheated and quickly dropped from the top of the charts. The Peacemaker will depend heavily on foreign, cable, and video revenues to turn a profit. By the time Devil’s Advocate began to burn off, it was clear audiences had overdosed on thrillers. Only the serial-killer tale Kiss the Girls had real staying power — thanks in large part to the presence of its star. ”Without question, Morgan Freeman brought a credibility to the movie,” says Paramount film vice chairman Rob Friedman.

Comedies Brought Relief

While Douglas and Reeves were being tortured on screen, moviegoers went for the laugh. Though 1996’s The Birdcage proved that mainstream moviegoers were ready for gay comedies, In & Out went a step further, allowing all-American Tom Selleck to plant a big smackeroo on the lips of sexually confused Kevin Kline. And even as special-interest groups on the left and right acrimoniously debated TV’s newly liberated Ellen, In & Out rose to the top of the box office charts without any backlash. Securely positioned in the same fall slot where The First Wives Club hit big last year, it underscored the audience’s appetite for solid comedies.

Sexual role reversals also contributed to the novelty of The Full Monty, the British import starring Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting), about unemployed factory workers-turned-unlikely male strippers. Launched Aug. 13 on just six screens, it quickly jumped from art-house hit to word-of-mouth phenomenon, inspiring stripper contests and even an episode of The Drew Carey Show. Produced at a cost of just $3 million, it’s proving itself the biggest little hit of the season as it bumps and grinds to a potential domestic gross of $40 million — and more if Fox Searchlight’s planned Oscar campaign pays off.

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