The Summer's Other Hitting Streak : The major studios are on a record pace, slugging at least 11 films into $100-million territory. The final tally will approach $3 billion.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, hitting 'em out of the park in astonishing numbers, the major studios are this year's boys of summer, sending one film after another roaring beyond the fence.

"It was the perfect summer," concludes Walt Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth. And in Hollywood, perfection consists of popping a record 11 films into $100-million territory, with one more film ("American Pie") expected to reach that number by early fall.

"The great thing about this summer," says Sony Pictures Entertainment distribution head Jeff Blake, "is that most of the favorites did as expected or bigger, and there were great surprises as well."

In fact, at the point at which summer business usually begins to ease off, "The Blair Witch Project" and "The Sixth Sense" punched it back into overdrive.

The favorites, such as "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace," topped $400 million. Another predicted hit, "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," surpassed $200 million. But the surprises truly came out of left field. "Blair Witch" ($140 million final total expected) and the quiet and stealthy "The Sixth Sense" will probably surpass "Austin Powers" before its run is finished.

By the time admissions to Hollywood's favorite pastime (the summer movie binge accounts for about 40% of the industry's annual revenues) reach the final inning over the Labor Day weekend, the final summer of the century is expected to easily outdistance 1998's $2.6-billion record by as much as 20%. The industry best final tally should come within throwing distance of $3 billion. As of Sunday, it was $2.7 billion since Memorial Day.

And while the average price of going to the movies has increased, so has the number of people buying tickets. Since Memorial Day, the actual number of tickets sold has increased 19.5% to 558 million from 483 million, also a record. Average price nationwide is $4.85, up from $4.69 a year ago, according to figures compiled by Exhibitor Relations Co.

Apart from the effects-laden "Phantom Menace" and the early-summer hit "The Mummy," action wasn't where the action was this summer. Most of the top-grossing films were story- and character-driven, many of them moderately budgeted comedies (Mike Myers' "Austin Powers" sequel and Adam Sandler's "Big Daddy"), as well as a couple of edge-of-your-seat scary movies ("The Blair Witch Project," "Sixth Sense").

As the ruinously expensive "Wild Wild West" (budget estimates range as high as $180 million) demonstrated, all the money in the world doesn't guarantee freshness and inventiveness. Taking a cue from last summer's modestly budgeted laugh riot "There's Something About Mary," this year's biggest surprises came in small packages.

"We're getting smarter about budgeting," says Universal chief Stacey Snider, whose studio enjoyed a major rebound this summer with three $100-million hits ("The Mummy," "Notting Hill," and soon, "American Pie"), "which is allowing us to take more chances."

The studios are also becoming more savvy about scheduling. There was a great deal of shuffling with movie lineups, most of it to good effect. Universal wisely countered the predicted monster hit "Phantom Menace" with "Notting Hill"--while all the other studios were playing duck and cover--scoring solidly with the female and date-night audience. Then, by dropping "American Pie" back to midsummer, Universal was able to build up buzz on the raunchy surprise-hit comedy and capitalize on the lucrative summer recess period.

Disney shifted "The Sixth Sense" from early fall into late August and then up another two more weeks, almost getting in harm's way when another creepy-crawly, "The Blair Witch Project," took off. But curiously, "Sixth Sense" actually benefited from "Blair," as audiences were still hungry for bigger scares. As with the astounding "Blair Witch," "Sixth Sense" enjoyed little or no advance buzz (it didn't have "Blair's" Web buildup), becoming the biggest sleeper of summer's sterling second half.

There were other, milder surprises such as "American Pie," "The Haunting," "Inspector Gadget" and "The Thomas Crown Affair," all of which performed better than anticipated. Perhaps in reaction to the overkill "Size Does Matter" marketing ballyhoo that preceded last summer's disappointing "Godzilla," this might be called the summer of anti-hype, according to Tom Sherak, senior executive at 20th Century Fox. "We toned it down a bit this year," says Sherak, "because I think people sensed we were hyping ourselves to death and then couldn't live up to it." Even the "Phantom Menace" marketing campaign was restrained. The media shouldered most of the film's promotion--and that was free. Only "Austin Powers" seemed to be awash in ostentatious marketing tie-ins, though most of the witty Virgin ads dovetailed nicely with the central character's bad-boy comic appeal. But both those films had built-in recognition.

The out-of-the-blue hit was the independently made, no-budget, no-star "The Blair Witch Project," which represented a seismic shift in the perception of how movies can be effectively sold and released. Its impact bears comparison with the arrival of "Star Wars" in 1977. Even the release pattern was the same, observes Sherak--opening first in about 30 theaters, drawing record crowds (the much-courted youth audience) and building up audience anticipation followed by a national break and a $100-million-plus gross.

'Blair Witch' Points Up Major Shift in Marketing

Over the past several months, "Blair Witch" had been developing an underground cult following based on its interactive Web site, a no-cost way of spreading the word on a movie that had only originality going for it. For most of the film community, says entertainment attorney David Colden of Colden, McKuinn, " 'Blair Witch' remained under the radar, though its sleeper potential was already evident to some studio marketing executives." "Blair Witch" was receiving an extraordinarily high 15% "unaided awareness" with the public even before it hit theaters, marketing executives say. Unaided awareness is a tracking calculation that canvases moviegoers' knowledge of a film without the help of any advertising. That meant "Blair Witch" was already on the minds of a significant segment of the moviegoing population before it was being actively promoted.

"The sheer originality of their strategy is what helped the film pop through the clutter," says Chris Pula, marketing president at Disney. "It's going to do a maddeningly good thing--call attention to new methods the marketing community has been trying to push within the studio system."

"Blair Witch" also brought into question the major studios' release patterns, which increasingly favor 3,000 theater debuts. "Blair Witch" started its life in mostly specialized (art house) venues. When it broke nationally, the film was only on about 1,100 screens, but it still managed to sell $29 million in tickets.

"If you dissect the numbers," says MGM marketing head Jerry Rich, "you find that most of the business on a film is done in the top 800 to 1,000 houses. But ego and other pressures have led people to increase the number of theaters in a way that doesn't make a lot of economic sense."

Beyond the individual film's success, says "American Pie" producer Warren Zide, "Blair Witch" demonstrates the "profound effect of the Internet. Kids now have greater access to information than they did four or five years ago." And the ramifications of that for the movie industry are profound, he says, because a bad movie's reputation now develops from the very first test screenings and there's little the studios can do to control it.

Another outgrowth of summer 1999 was continuing proof that for all the talk about satisfying the youth audience, older ticket buyers were out in full force, particularly in the latter half of the season, says Paramount vice chairman Rob Friedman, whose studio scored with two adult skewing hits, "The General's Daughter" and "Runaway Bride."

Despite the credo that adults don't rush out to see a movie, "Runaway Bride" garnered $35 million its first weekend. Several other movies aimed at adults that debuted at $20 million or higher included "Entrapment," "The General's Daughter," "Notting Hill," "Eyes Wide Shut" and "The Sixth Sense."

At the other end of the age spectrum are preteens, who went to see (over and over and over) "Phantom Menace," "The Mummy," "Inspector Gadget" and "Tarzan."

One thing that didn't change this summer was the drawing power of major stars. Only Tom Cruise broke his mega-hit winning streak, and Will Smith's "Wild Wild West" was disappointing only in terms of its cost. He still managed to draw in enough patrons to sell more than $100 million in tickets for the clunky western spoof.

And Julia Roberts held her own against the guys with two $100-million-plus grossing films ("Notting Hill," "Runaway Bride"). John Travolta and Sean Connery scored with "General's Daughter" and "Entrapment," respectively. Comics Myers and Sandler moved up the star food chain thanks to the "Austin Powers" sequel and "Big Daddy." Bruce Willis looks to have his second $200-million-plus summer vehicle in a row (last summer's was "Armageddon") with "The Sixth Sense."

Even without the once-in-a-generation, breakaway hit "The Blair Witch Project," independent and art-house releases acquitted themselves quite well this summer. The grosses may not appear impressive when compared to the giant studio releases, but most were low-cost films with upscale appeal.

The function of independent movies in summer, says Sony Pictures Classics principal Michael Barker, is as counter-programming to major studio escapist fare. Most of the stronger specialized films played all summer long, and are continuing into the fall, owing their popularity to reviews and word of mouth.

A gross of $4 million or more is considered a breakout hit in the specialized market, according to Barker.

MGM marketing head Jerry Rich describes "Tea With Mussolini," a World War II period drama starring Cher and Dame Judi Dench, as the "antidote" to teen movies. Not surprisingly, literary films such as "An Ideal Husband," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Tea" fared best, but "The Red Violin" and "Run Lola Run" were also very strong, as was Wim Wenders' Cuban-based musical documentary "Buena Vista Social Club," one of the better-performing nonfiction films in recent years.

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Weekend Box Office

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Three-day gross/ Screens/ Weeks in Movie (Studio) Total (millions) Average Release 1. "The Sixth Sense" $20.1 2,763 4 (Disney/Hollywood) $138.9 $7,274 2. "The 13th Warrior" $10.3 2,306 1 (Disney/Touchstone) $10.3 $4,453 3. "Runaway Bride" $6.8 3,090 5 (Paramount) $124.4 $2,214 4. "Bowfinger" $6.6 2,732 3 (Universal) $46.4 $2,410 5. "Mickey Blue Eyes" $5.4 2,573 2 (Warner Bros.) $19.7 $2,109 6. "The Thomas Crown Affair" $4.6 2,095 4 (MGM) $49.8 $2,205 7. "In Too Deep" $4.2 667 1 (Dimension) $5.8 $6,327 8. "The Blair Witch Project" $4.2 2,352 7 (Artisan) $128.1 $1,794 9. "The Astronaut's Wife" $4.0 2,209 1 (New Line) $4.0 $1,823 10. "The Muse" $3.9 1,263 1 (USA Films) $3.9 $3,109 "Dudley Do-Right" $3.0 1,802 1 (Universal) $3.0 $1,675 "A Dog of Flanders" $807,873 1,267 1 (Warner Bros.) $807,873 $638 "Life Is Beautiful" $63,934 15 1 (English version) (Miramax) $57.3 $4,262 "The Very Thought of You" $29,692 5 1 (Miramax) $29,692 $5,938

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SOURCE: Exhibitor Relations Co.

Hot Numbers

Projected final grosses for the top dozen films of the summer season:

"Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace": $425 million

"The Sixth Sense": $210 million

"Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me": $205 million

"Tarzan": $170 million

"Big Daddy": $160 million

"The Mummy": $155 million

"Runaway Bride": $145 million

"The Blair Witch Project": $140 million

"Notting Hill": $115 million

"Wild Wild West": $112 million

"The General's Daughter": $105 million

"American Pie": $100 million

Source: Exhibitor Relations Co.

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