''The Wedding Singer'' and spring romances -? Hollywood's bouquet of romantic films blossomed into hits

So far, the 1998 box office mood can be summed up by one four-letter word: L-O-V-E. Starting with a movie about a big boat that sank, romance flicks have struck a consistent chord with moviegoers during the year’s first quarter. As a result, Hollywood is now opening its heart (and its purse strings) to many-splendored scripts.

Perhaps the most improbable hero of this love affair isn’t Leonardo DiCaprio but Adam Sandler, star of the endearing little romantic comedy The Wedding Singer. ”When Adam came in and pitched it to us,” says New Line president of production Michael De Luca, ”it was his desire to have it be the film that could broaden his audience, which had been primarily male. He designed the story from the ground up with that intention in mind.” Good call, because The Wedding Singer has raked in $75 million since Valentine’s Day, making it the No. 1 release of 1998 (Titanic opened last December). And Sandler’s success is no isolated phenomenon. City of Angels, a movie that came out of nowhere, has grossed $46.6 million on the strength of the Meg Ryan- Nicolas Cage celestial courtship. True, audiences couldn’t turn down a little action (Lost in Space and U.S. Marshals grossed over $50 million), but even mediocre chick flicks like Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke’s Great Expectations edged out he-man showdowns like Christian Slater’s Hard Rain ($26 million compared with $19.9 million so far).

As Titanic‘s $1.5 billion worldwide take proves, audiences have developed an insatiable appetite for on-screen passion. ”The world seems to truly want to be happy at the theater,” says Wedding Singer costar Drew Barrymore. ”I think we should run with it.”

Well, the race is already on in Hollywood. This week, audiences will see a wide opening of another — and much better — Paltrow romance (this time with Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s John Hannah), Miramax/ Paramount’s Sliding Doors. (In limited release, it debuted April 24 with a per-screen average of $7,135.) Next month, Fox opens Hope Floats, a love affair between Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr., and in August, the studio showcases Barrymore as a neo-feminist Cinderella in Ever After. Even the granddaddy of love stories, Gone With the Wind, is helping to stoke the fire: In June, New Line will reissue a restored version of the 1939 epic.

”For a while, studios felt people shouldn’t write [scripts with] big emotions. Now they’re not afraid,” says screenwriter Ron Bass, who’s currently developing Manhattan Ghost Story, a loveydovey project that got the green light after kicking around for years. It may star Julia Roberts, who rebounded with the Bass-written romantic hit My Best Friend’s Wedding and who’s in London shooting another love story, Notting Hill, with Hugh Grant. Nor is this trend just a girl thing: Will Smith, Kevin Costner, and Robin Williams are tugging at the heartstrings as well. Universal purchased a spec script called Love, Jenny, a supernatural love story, for Smith and wife Jada Pinkett Smith. Costner is shooting Message in a Bottle, an adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ novel about a woman who finds a love letter in the sea. And Williams’ What Dreams May Come, about a man who journeys through heaven and hell for his wife, is due this fall.