The season's big box office questions answered -- We answer five pithy queries from the stars of ''March of the Penguins''

Oh, those penguins. Two months in the spotlight have swollen their pointy heads. The stars of the summer’s most surprising hit, March of the Penguins (which has racked up $38 million), recently called EW to chirp about the ever-perplexing summer box office. The fact that they bucked a season that posted the steepest year-to-year decline in recent memory certainly had the little buggers bragging. ”Doesn’t anyone know how to make a profitable hit anymore?” they asked with smug satisfaction. ”Are audiences no longer into explosions? Who needs marquee names, anyway?” We see how it is: first, emperors of the ice cap; now, emperors of movieland. But, we’ll admit, they asked some pertinent questions. So, we took five and translated them from the Antarctican.

HAVE ACTION MOVIES BLOWN A FUSE? It’s hard to look at the season’s high-profile flops — Stealth ($30 million), The Island ($34 million), and Kingdom of Heaven (an action-infused epic that petered out with $47 million) — and not say, ”Well…yeah!” After all, Wedding Crashers ($164 million) and The Longest Yard ($157 million) — and, yes, the penguin movie — proved you don’t need to blow up buildings to draw viewers. Still, some argue, a little carnage can go a long way, as demonstrated by Star Wars: Episode IIIRevenge of the Sith ($378 million), War of the Worlds ($229 million), Batman Begins ($201 million), and Fantastic Four ($148 million). And as Mr. & Mrs. Smith ($182 million) shows, tweaking the action-flick formula can pay dividends.

The summer 2006 slate (Mission: Impossible 3, Miami Vice, X-Men 3, and Poseidon) proves action is here to stay, though the tweaking part could use some work.

WILL FRANCHISE FLICKS REMAIN THE RAGE? Cinderella Man‘s conspicuous disappointment ($61 million) extends the uneven reception that’s met summer-released adult Oscar bait since Saving Private Ryan earned $216 million in 1998. Bye-bye to those kinds of movies. And we know what that means: more room for presold blockbusters like Revenge of the Sith (the summer’s No. 1 movie by nearly $150 million), War of the Worlds (the top-grossing film of Tom Cruise’s lucrative career), and Fantastic Four (which overcame middling reviews to boost 20th Century Fox’s standing as the season’s big winner). But here we come back to that tweaking thing — though let’s call it originality: ”The success of Batman Begins both artistically and commercially shows that a big-budget franchise movie doesn’t have to be formulaic,” says Lions Gate Films releasing president Tom Ortenberg. ”Big budget doesn’t have to mean unoriginal.” Nor do smaller budgets, as two wedding crashers and those penguins can attest.

DOES STAR POWER MATTER? Tricky question. For years, George Lucas and most comic-book adaptations have proved that movies without big-name actors can succeed. Moreover, Bewitched ($62 million) and Cinderella Man both underperformed in spite of their stars. On the other hand, when contemplating the poor domestic box office performance of, say, The Island or Kingdom of Heaven, studio execs will often fixate on star power (or lack thereof). In fact, three of the summer’s biggest hits — Mr. & Mrs. Smith, The Longest Yard, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ($184 million) — succeeded because of Brangelina, Adam Sandler, and Johnny Depp, respectively. Yes, all agree, stars do help (minus, of course, phone throwing and couch jumping), as does an element of surprise. Producer Cathy Schulman’s film Crash ($53 million), the summer’s top indie, featured unorthodox performances from Matt Dillon and Sandra Bullock (and emerging star Terrence Howard). Schulman believes part of the trick is making popular stars ”interesting again, as opposed to just there again.”

March of the Penguins
  • Movie
  • 80 minutes