Hollywood paces itself for the summer blockbuster season

By Gillian Flynn
Updated March 19, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Affleck, Clooney, Damon and Pitt: Jeff Kravitz/Film Magic

Forget white shoes or final exams or ”Friends”’ season finale. For film lovers, the real first sign of summer is ShoWest, the annual dog and pony show for movie theater owners in Las Vegas. At this year’s hypefest (March 5 – 8), the presence of George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Brad Pitt (from Warner Bros.’ year end ”Ocean’s Eleven”), as well as summer stars like Nicolas Cage (Universal’s ”Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”) and Hilary Swank (Warner’s ”The Affair of the Necklace”) seemed to calm box office nerves. ”Summer looks great,” says Century Theatres CEO Raymond Syufy. ”It’s a nice flow of [films] and a wide range of product.”

The long, hot season, which typically accounts for 45 percent of annual box office, can’t come soon enough. Ten major theater chains — including Carmike and Loews Cineplex — are coping with bankruptcy. And after a boom in multiplex construction, the industry is now shuttering some 200 screens a month. Moviegoers haven’t been much help: Last summer, domestic box office fell 5 percent, the first drop since 1991.

But in Vegas, Hollywood took a break from such gloom and doom — including a possible strike by writers and actors — to unveil a formula it hopes will get fannies back into those seats. The plan: carefully spaced blockbusters (no star studded showdown, à la 2000’s ”The Patriot” vs. ”The Perfect Storm”) peppered with odds on money makers like sequels and comedies from vets like the Wayans Brothers and Eddie Murphy.

And once again, summer won’t wait until Memorial Day. Universal will unwrap ”The Mummy Returns” May 4, giving it a three week jump on Disney’s $135 million ”Pearl Harbor,” with Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett. Smart move, since ShoWesters are betting ”Pearl” will kick off a holiday weekend that will live in profitability. ”You’ve got young, appealing stars, patriotism, love interests, epic scope,” says Regal Cinemas CEO Mike Campbell. ”I won’t predict it’s as successful as ‘Titanic.’ But it has a lot of the same elements.”

Whereas last year’s moviegoing momentum fizzled due to poor pacing of releases, this summer’s big budget, action driven pics will arrive on fine tuned schedules. June is anchored by Paramount’s ”Tomb Raider,” with Angelina Jolie, and Steven Spielberg’s top secret ”A.I.” for DreamWorks. Star Haley Joel Osment, who picked up a ShoWest acting award, says his character — an artificial boy — differs from his earlier roles. How so? ”I’m not really allowed to say.” A hush also surrounds Tim Burton’s July film, ”Planet of the Apes,” with Mark Wahlberg, which Fox insists is not a remake. (Don’t look for a Lady Liberty cameo.) ”We’re keeping the ending close to our vests,” says producer Richard Zanuck.

Even kid targeted films like DreamWorks’ Mike Myers – Eddie Murphy computer animated ”Shrek” (which screened to great cheer) and Disney’s ‘toon drama ”Atlantis” (whose voice star, Michael J. Fox, got a standing ovation) are giving each other room to play. ”Shrek” hits in May, ”Atlantis” in June, and Warner Bros.’ Chris Rock voiced ”Osmosis Jones” in August.

Theater owners are also counting on some good old fashioned déjà vu: This time around, look for ”Rush Hour” 2, ”Jurassic Park” 3, ”American Pie” 2, ”Dr. Dolittle” 2, and ”Scary Movie” 2. ”These are sequels that should have some power left in them,” says Campbell. ”’Jurassic Park’ will open. I’m not sure how its legs will be, but we certainly want it in all our theaters.”

Two of last year’s comedy anchors are returning in similar situations. Martin Lawrence’s MGM film ”What’s the Worst That Can Happen?” will open the same June weekend as his 2000 hit, ”Big Momma’s House.” And after producing ”Road Trip,” Ivan Reitman is back at DreamWorks, directing ”Evolution” — with David Duchovny doing broad comedy. ”But not stupidly broad,” swears Duchovny. ”Ivan would give me advice like, ‘Don’t suck.”’ Now that’s a tip worth spreading.