''Armageddon'' and ''Godzilla'' are underachievers, but this summer's unexpected hits are making up for it

With a take of $34.8 million this weekend, ”Armageddon” fell far short of the $51.1 million that ”Men in Black” grossed last year on the Fourth of July. Add to this the fact that ”Godzilla” earned $35 million less than last year’s Memorial Day winner, ”The Lost World,” and you might think the major studios are ready to plead poverty. But in fact, box office receipts are up 9% from last summer. Though the much-hyped blockbusters aren’t quite blockbusting, other surprise successes such as ”Mulan” and ”Dr. Dolittle” have been attracting audiences quietly and reliably.

So far, ”Mulan” has grossed $77.1 million, ”Dr. Dolittle” $65 million, and ”The Truman Show,” once considered an iffy proposition because of Jim Carrey’s more serious turn, $100 million. ”You don’t need a big breakaway hit to have a record summer,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. ”Consistency has been the word this year. Even a movie like ‘Hope Floats’ is up to $52 million. Who would have expected that?”

The success of films with more exposition than explosions suggests that the days of special effects first, script second, may be over. ”Audiences want more than just computer-generated effects,” says box office analyst Jae Kim, who predicts that the next film to watch is Steven Spielbergs’s WWII drama, ”Saving Private Ryan” (which opens July 24). ”The movie’s going to be filled with high-end special effects, but Spielberg is letting the story do the heavy lifting.”

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