Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones: © & TM Lucasfilm, Ltd, All Rights Reserved
September 06, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

This summer’s box office has been hot. Nelly hot. Hot enough to start adding extra r’s in here. Case in point: Thanks to its fab four summer tent poles of ”Spider-Man,” ”Men in Black II,” ”Mr. Deeds,” and ”XXX,” Columbia recently broke the record for the highest studio gross in a calendar year (besting its own $1.27 billion take in 1997)…and it’s only August.

The phenomenal May kickoff from ”Spider-Man” and Fox’s ”Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” ensured that this season set a new benchmark of more than $3.3 billion — even though 2002 saw the slowest July at the multiplex in five years. When all the beans are counted, 14 films should break $100 million in domestic box office, compared with 11 last summer.

But for every blockbuster (New Line’s ”Austin Powers in Goldmember”), there was an equally high-profile disaster (Touchstone’s ”Bad Company”) — with not much in between. And when more than a half dozen films have budgets that reportedly cross the century mark, it may be obsolete to automatically deem any $100 million grosser a smash. Entertainment Weekly gathered a studio COO, a distribution chief, and a marketing president — all spoke anonymously in return for coughing up the straight dope — to assess the season’s winners and losers.

THE FRANCHISES

With a record $114.8 million bow and a total haul of $405 million, ”Spider-Man” spun a bigger web than anyone could have imagined. After ”Titanic” and ”The Phantom Menace,” it’s only the third movie in history to top $400 million in its initial release. Likewise, ”Goldmember” looks to out-shag the $205 million take of 1999’s ”The Spy Who Shagged Me.” But ”Men in Black II” bucked the Hollywood trend by selling fewer tickets in its opening weekend than the first ”MIB” did five years ago (usually sequels have considerably larger debuts). Whereas ”MIB” ultimately collected $251 million domestically, the sequel looks like it will disappear before making $200 million — suddenly, ”MIB3” doesn’t seem like such a sure thing. And ”Attack of the Clones”’ $300 million gross is a full $131 million less than ”Menace” raked in. ”I hate to live in a world where $300 million is considered a disappointment,” says the distribution chief. ”Unfortunately, if we’re not in that world, we’re probably in the neighborhood.”

THE THINKING MAN’S DRAMAS

Who needs popcorn flicks? Three of Hollywood’s most popular leading men led audiences to darker, more serious warm-weather fare. With Touchstone’s ”Signs,” Mel Gibson will score his biggest box office hit ever (topping 2000’s ”What Women Want”). Tom Cruise teamed up for the first time with fellow money magnet Steven Spielberg in a sci-fi film for Fox’s ”Minority Report,” whose projected $133 million gross is enviable, but hardly a career best for either. Meanwhile, Tom Hanks launched DreamWorks’ ”Road to Perdition” in the same month as 1998’s ”Saving Private Ryan” — but the road didn’t lead to another blockbuster. ”This will be Hanks’ lowest-grossing movie in six years,” says the COO. ”That’s the very definition of disappointing.” But talk of a sixth career Oscar nod for Best Actor might compensate.

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