Gauging the Heat of Competition as Post-’Menace’ Season Begins


Today’s highly anticipated release of New Line’s $33-million sequel “Austin Powers II: The Spy Who Shagged Me” starts what could prove to be the most heavily trafficked two months in recent movie history.

The studios steered most of their big summer releases clear of George Lucas’ behemoth “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace” during the month of May, so they’ll unleash their highest profile titles beginning this weekend and continuing through August.

With virtually the same number of movies being released this summer as last (182 compared with 181), the “Star Wars” factor is causing a stacking effect on the rest of this season’s playing time. Summer--because kids are out of school, it’s the busiest moviegoing season of the year--accounts for about 40% of the year’s box-office receipts.


“It’s going to be a really heated marketplace, and there’s going to be a record amount of ticket buying,” predicted Joe Roth, chairman of Disney Studios, whose latest animated feature “Tarzan” is expected to be among the summer’s strongest hits.

Industry experts expect “Austin Powers II” to succeed “Phantom Menace” as the nation’s top-grossing film for this weekend, taking in $40 million or more.

But Sony worldwide distribution chief Jeff Blake said that the big concern among studios is what impact the overcrowded marketplace will have on new releases, particularly from mid-July until mid-August when there are four to five new films opening every weekend.

On Friday, July 16, for instance, Warner Bros. opens Stanley Kubrick’s final film, “Eyes Wide Shut”; Fox debuts “Lake Placid”; and New Line has “Drop Dead Gorgeous.” Sony will offer “Muppets From Space” two days earlier.

On one weekend in mid-August, Warner will open “Mickey Blue Eyes,” Universal will have “Bowfinger,” Fox will have “Brokedown Palace,” New Line will debut “Detroit Rock City,” MGM will bring out “Mr. Accident” and Disney will release “The 13th Warrior.”

Studio executives also are concerned that too many films are aimed at the same audience--young moviegoers.


For example, “Tarzan,” which opens next Friday, is sandwiched between the live-action youth comedies “Austin Powers II,” with Mike Myers, and Columbia Pictures’ “Big Daddy,” starring Adam Sandler.

The prospects for “Tarzan” look promising, particularly for families and younger children, but there’s a crossover audience of preteens (ages 8 to 12)--particularly boys--for all three pictures.

Roth acknowledged that “Austin Powers II” and “Big Daddy” will have “large components” of the audience “who need to come to ‘Tarzan.’ ”

According to Roth, the pre-release tracking for “Tarzan” shows the film is appealing to men and women (parents) and boys and girls (under 12). The last time that those four audience segments were interested in a Disney animated movie was in 1994, for the blockbuster “The Lion King”--the most profitable animated movie ever.

The big difference is that when “Lion King” was released five years ago, it faced virtually no competition from other summer movies. The only other big hit that summer was the Paramount Pictures drama “Forrest Gump.” “Lion King” and “Gump” each grossed more than $300 million domestically.

“Tarzan” is unlikely to reap anywhere near the kind of profit “Lion King” did (more than $1 billion), even if it is a big hit. Not only is it competing in a very different market, it also cost three times as much (at around $150 million, before marketing) to make. So Disney will have to recoup more than $200 million before it starts seeing a profit on it.


“It used to be that in the ‘Lion King’ days, there was a real separation in summer between the family pictures and the other pictures, action or whatever genre they were,” Roth said. “Now there’s much more crossover, so the definition of a family film isn’t as strict.”

Roth noted how last summer there was a notable crossover between Disney’s animated movie “Mulan” (which grossed $120 million) and Fox’s live-action family comedy “Dr. Dolittle” ($144 million).

The challenge for the movies aimed at similar audiences is to sustain themselves week after week.

Naturally, Roth believes “Tarzan” is a strong enough family film to “have a chance of really breaking out and going a long way,” despite the competition.

Sony’s Blake believes that audiences will find high-profile movies such as “Tarzan,” “Big Daddy” and Barry Sonnefeld’s action comedy “Wild Wild West” with Will Smith. It’s “the next level of pictures that aren’t as expensive” that risk getting crushed.

“The body count of those pictures can pile up quickly when there are four or five movies opening on a weekend,” Blake said.


When the final summer count is tallied, it’s a good bet there will be a plenty of films grossing well more than $100 million. Two, “Phantom Menace” and “The Mummy,” have already achieved that. Others expected to attain that level are “Notting Hill,” starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant (which has grossed more than $50 million in its first two weeks); “Austin Powers II”; “Tarzan”; “Big Daddy”; Universal’s teen comedy “American Pie,”; “Wild Wild West”; and Paramount’s “Runaway Bride,” pairing Roberts and Richard Gere.

There are also some wild cards, including “Eyes Wide Shut,” with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman; Disney’s family picture “Inspector Gadget”; and DreamWorks’ horror film “The Haunting,” directed by Jan De Bont.

Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks box-office results, expects this summer to beat last year’s record take of nearly $2.6 billion.

According to Dergarabedian, this summer the major studios will release 47 films (exactly the same as last summer), the independents will release 76, and Disney-owned Miramax Films will release 12.

Dergarabedian, like many industry executives, believes the popularity of the to “Star Wars” prequel “created momentum at the beginning of the summer which has set the tone for moviegoing.”

Blake said that “Phantom Menace,” released May 19 by 20th Century Fox, will contribute “added value” to the summer box office overall.


“It really turned out well for everybody,” Blake said. “The film is taking out a lot of money on its own and has clearly set a path for itself. And there was a lot of fear that ‘Star Wars’ was going to be so dominant, it would flatten movies for the entire summer--but that doesn’t look like it’s going to be the case.”

Despite the onslaught of competition from new releases during the next several weeks, “Phantom Menace”--which amassed $255.7 million in a record 19 days--is expected to add $100 million to $150 million more to its domestic gross, bringing its total to between $350 million and $400 million.

“As the summer truly begins, let the force be with us all,” said an enthusiastic Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox Domestic Film Group.


The Biggest Summer?

George Lucas’ “Star Wars” sequel has set the tone for what is expected to be a record summer. Hollywoods’ major studios have been saving their big guns, planning to release them over the next eight to 10 weeks. This weekend’s “Austin Powers II” release begins the fierce competition. A look at the box-office tally for the Memorial Day to Labor Day period, in billions of dollars:

Summer of 1998: $2.58 billion

Source: Exhibitor Relations Co.