With event movies and big albums tumbling, Hollywood just can't seem to make it another blockbuster night.

By Andrew Essex
Updated July 24, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT
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It will go down in history as the summer the blockbuster turned lackluster.

Halfway to Labor Day, something strange is happening in entertainment: This year’s putative event movies are taking their sweet time cracking the $150 million mark, and it looks increasingly unlikely that any of the films will see $200 million.

Considering that there’s been a $200 million summer movie in all but 3 of the past 10 years, this is an odd summer indeed. Even the most sunstruck event-movie devotees are detecting the scent of blockbuster breakdown in the air. “People are looking for a big event film to propel the summer,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. “Last year it was Men in Black; the year before, it was Independence Day. This year, what are people going to point to?”

Such an uneventful scenario would’ve been hard to predict two months ago. The summer of ’98 began with an apocalyptic bang, as Paramount/DreamWorks’ Deep Impact logged an unexpectedly meteoric $41.2 million opening weekend. It looked as if the event-movie field was off to the races. But then, following equally impressive openings, Godzilla stumbled and The X-Files crumbled (if you consider grosses of $134 million and $74 million, respectively, disappointing).

“Back in May,” says Variety box office analyst Leonard Klady, “almost anyone you asked would have guaranteed that Godzilla and Armageddon would break $200 million.” Of course, that was long before America discovered that the most frightening thing in Godzilla was Maria Pitillo and that Lethal Weapon 4 was as fresh as a fossilized bagel. (Klady thinks Armageddon will probably break $150 million, but “at a crawl.” LW4 could reach upwards of $125 million.)

Not that folks are staying away. In fact, in a dizzying case of box office heat prostration, ticket sales are actually rising. The 1998 summer total is $1.21 billion, up from $1.12 billion at this time last year—an impressive 8 percent jump. Among the season’s modest nonevent-movie hits: Hope Floats ($54 million), A Perfect Murder ($64 million), The Horse Whisperer ($70 million), and Dr. Dolittle ($89 million). Collectively, these ”little” movies have made for a very good, if decentralized, season.

A similar economic tick appears to be infecting the music industry. Blockbuster acts like Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, and LeAnn Rimes have failed to deliver, but industry stats are surging. According to SoundScan, 1998 album sales are up 9 percent—and up 11.9 percent in June alone. Soundtracks are doing particularly well: Four are currently lodged in the Billboard top 10 (Armageddon, City of Angels, Hope Floats, and Dr. Dolittle). “No one’s breaking out,” says Chris Muratore of SoundScan, “but there’s music all over the field.”

And it seems unlikely there will yet be a breakout hit. The only major music releases are from such demi-stars as Korn and Lauryn Hill, and there are only a few box office barbarians still at the gate (Steven Spielberg‘s Saving Private Ryan and Brian De Palma‘s Snake Eyes).

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