EW separates the REAL hits from those with super opening weekends

By Gillian Flynn
September 17, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Despite wretched reviews for most of this season’s blockbusters, the studios still managed to get as plump as Julia Roberts in her ”America’s Sweethearts” fat suit. Overall box office hit $2.96 billion, up 10.4 percent from last summer (and that doesn’t include the currency from worldwide grosses, video rentals, and DVD sales). Plus, there was no shortage of records broken: ”American Pie 2” had the best opening for an R-rated comedy ($45.1 million). ”Rush Hour 2” posted August’s biggest bow ($67.4 million). ”Planet of the Apes” had the highest nonholiday opening ($68.5 million). And ”Legally Blonde” ($20.4 million) scored the best debut for a film that’s — um — like super, super pink.

But this season was truly a roller-coaster ride, with box office highs followed by ego shattering lows. (”Apes”’ gross dropped 60 percent in its second weekend.) All told, 8 of the 12 films to open at No. 1 plummeted 50 percent or more in their sophomore outings. What happened? Part of the blame rests with studio marketing that focuses exclusively on the opening weekend (after which TV ads virtually disappear). Another factor: the overabundance of megaplexes, allowing movies like ”Apes” to unspool on nearly 5,000 screens. ”When you open at such huge numbers, it’s impossible not to have substantial drops,” says ”The Fast and the Furious” producer Neal Moritz.

The good news is we’ve seen the last of what the suits call ”front-loading,” at least for a while. Most experts say it won’t spread beyond the hypercompetitive summer, when studios earn about 40 percent of their yearly revenue. ”This is high season for event movies,” says Tom Borys, prez of box office tracking firm ACNielsen EDI. ”It’s when the most audience is available.”

But with such a quick hit summer, the old formulas for judging receipts no longer apply. Don’t get us wrong: A film’s ability to debut at No. 1 with a big gross remains paramount to Hollywood’s bottom line. But this summer it wasn’t a real indication of a movie’s actual appeal to moviegoers. Now that a studio can plaster the world with ads and orchestrate a record breaking debut, being No. 1 seems more meaningless. It’s almost as if a new formula is needed to judge a true blockbuster in an era of one-weekend wonders.