George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon are some of the attendees at this year's star-studded ShoWest.

By Gillian Flynn
Updated March 23, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

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, a 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 deja 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.