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A season to rave about

Times Staff Writer

Eddie MURPHY’S career was on the rebound. Until this summer.

Larry and Andy Wachowski had been box-office gold. Then “Speed Racer” crashed and burned.

And not that long ago, 20th Century Fox could peddle the most middling movies. But there was no such magic for “Space Chimps,” “The Rocker” or “The X-Files: I Want to Believe.”

Those, however, were the few exceptions to the summer movie season, when almost everything worked for the studios.

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The school’s-out movie season concludes this weekend, and domestic ticket sales so far total $3.9 billion, up a little more than 1% from last year’s record summer, according to Media by Numbers. Year-to-date revenues stand at $6.7 billion, down slightly from 2007, but up from the three earlier years, the tracking firm says.

Higher ticket prices mean theaters are selling fewer total admissions, but few distributors and exhibitors are complaining -- except for those handling what has become Hollywood’s trickiest sell: the art film.

While the summer was filled with far more hits than catastrophes, there were a handful of star vehicles that hardly drew a breath. Mike Myers’ “The Love Guru” grossed only $32.2 million. Kevin Costner’s self-financed “Swing Vote” has brought in a negligible $15.5 million. And no one wanted to meet Murphy’s “Meet Dave,” which sold a mere $11.7 million in tickets.

Even with so many sequels, remakes and knockoffs, the quality of the movies themselves actually mattered.

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No matter how hard the studios hammered away with bombastic television ads and deafening coming attractions previews, it was ultimately word of mouth -- supported by critical raves -- that propelled moviegoers to the multiplex. It was no fluke that the summer’s two highest-grossing releases -- Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” and Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” -- were among the year’s best-reviewed studio films.

Here’s a ranking of how the major studios performed this summer:

Paramount

How in the world is Paramount ranked ahead of Warner Bros., which released “The Dark Knight,” now the second highest-grossing film of all time? Consistency.

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No other studio claimed more than one movie grossing more than $200 million this summer, and Paramount had three: “Iron Man,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

What’s noteworthy about Paramount’s summer is how few of its films were purely homegrown. “Iron Man” was made by Marvel Studios; “Indiana Jones” was co-produced by George Lucas’ Lucasfilm; “Kung Fu Panda” came from DreamWorks Animation; and “Tropic Thunder” hails from DreamWorks’ live-action division. That leaves Paramount in sole custody of . . . “The Love Guru,” the studio’s one true bomb. Repeating this summer’s triumph next year might be tough, as Paramount recently lost two of its best marketing executives -- Gerry Rich and Mike Vollman.

Warner Bros.

With a domestic gross of more than $490 million, “The Dark Knight” trails only one movie in box-office history, 1997’s “Titanic.” But that wasn’t the studio’s only remarkable feat. Facing competitive summer comedies from Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen, Warners delivered the period’s No. 1 laugher, Steve Carell in “Get Smart,” which grossed $128.2 million. Inheriting “Sex and the City” from New Line Cinema, Warners watched women stampede to theaters, as the HBO series update grossed more than $152 million. Another New Line production, “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” sold $92 million in tickets, very good for a movie that was initially made for 3-D but couldn’t always be shown in the format because there weren’t enough 3-D theaters.

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While “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" generated strong reviews and has grossed $38.7 million, the late-season sequel couldn’t undo the damage delivered at the summer’s start by “Speed Racer.” The studio and partner Village Roadshow spent a quarter of a billion dollars making and marketing the anime-inspired kids’ movie worldwide, but it grossed just $43.9 million, and barely any more overseas. A lot of “Dark Knight” profits will be sucked into that abyss.

Universal

The studio entered the summer carrying a lot of what talent agents call “science projects”: movies that needed a lot of puzzling over to succeed. Yet almost all of Universal’s releases met or exceeded expectations, especially outside the United States, where Universal raked in a fortune.

The studio’s $55-million “Mamma Mia!” has grossed more than $125 million domestically, but almost double that overseas -- when all the tickets are counted, the ABBA musical could take in more than $450 million worldwide. Not bad for the work of first-time director Phyllida Lloyd.

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Even though it grossed just $2 million more than its predecessor five years ago, “The Incredible Hulk” was deemed a relative success, particularly because it didn’t inspire any of the ridicule and ruthless exit polls that greeted Ang Lee’s 2003 attempt. “Wanted” did almost as well as “The Incredible Hulk,” with a gross of $133.8 million, even though some moviegoers are still puzzling over the film’s story.

While “Death Race” was a late-season fizzle, Universal opened the summer with the modestly successful thriller “Strangers,” a $9-million movie that grossed $52.6 million, and Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” has passed more than $100 million worldwide and could do another $75 million overseas.

Sony

The studio’s summer started off shakily -- Sony’s poorly reviewed “Made of Honor” was steamrolled by “Iron Man,” which opened the same weekend. After that, things improved, but Sony’s summer was a far cry from a year ago, when the company’s “Spider-Man 3" grossed more than $336 million domestically (and nearly $900 million worldwide).

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“Hancock” sold $226.4 million in tickets, proving that Will Smith is by far the most reliable box-office draw in the movies. But no other Sony movie has yet surpassed the $100-million milestone, although “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” ($99.7 million) and “Step Brothers” ($95.9 million) are awfully close. Sony says its slate is profitable, but when you have succeeded so well in the past, a summer like this looks lackluster in comparison.

Disney

The studio is intentionally scaling back the volume of its wide theatrical releases, and Disney’s strategy was obvious this summer, when it opened just three movies. “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” grossed $141.5 million, which sounds respectable but is less than half the revenue of 2005’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which grossed $291.7 million. Pixar’s enthusiastically reviewed “Wall-E” continued the animation studio’s unparalleled run of hits, grossing $216.4 million domestically -- less than “Cars” and “The Incredibles” but more than “Ratatouille.” But Disney’s summer ended poorly, as Costner’s “Swing Vote” took in only $15.5 million.

Fox

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Mention Fox’s summer to rival studio executives, and you get the kind of winces and groans that typically accompany an Olympic diver’s belly-flop from the 10-meter platform.

If there is one bright spot in Fox’s summer besides “What Happens in Vegas,” it’s that the season is finally over -- but not before Vin Diesel’s “Babylon A.D.” premieres this weekend, carrying all the trappings (poor reviews, little buzz) of yet another Fox dud.

“What Happens in Vegas” is likely to approach $250 million in worldwide ticket sales, but not a single Fox release grossed more than $100 million domestically (“Vegas,” the studio’s top release, has local ticket sales of $80.2 million).

It wasn’t just that Fox’s movies flopped commercially; as my colleague Patrick Goldstein has chronicled, the slate was savaged by critics.

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Fox’s highest score on Rotten Tomatoes -- an online review aggregator that is part of News Corp.'s media empire -- was delivered by the gone-in-a-flash “The Rocker,” which posted a measly 37% positive average score.

Ever the frugal studio, Fox did try to keep its negative and marketing costs down, and shared “Meet Dave” with two financiers, while “Mirrors” and “Space Chimps” were fully financed (including prints and advertising costs) by third parties.

Nevertheless, Fox can’t wait for next summer, when it will have sequels to “X-Men” and “Ice Age” and a film version of “The A-Team.”

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john.horn@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

SUMMER’S BIGGEST HITS AND MISSES

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Studio: Paramount

Biggest hit: “Iron Man” ($317.5)

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Studio: Warner Bros.

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Biggest hit: “The Dark Knight” ($491.7)

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Studio: Universal

Biggest hit: “The Incredible Hulk” ($134.4)

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Studio: Sony

Biggest hit : “Hancock” ($226.4)

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Studio: Disney

Biggest hit: “Wall-E” ($216.5)

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Studio: Fox

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Biggest hit: “What Happens in Vegas” ($80.2 )

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Studio: Paramount

Biggest miss: “The Love Guru” ($32.2)

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Studio: Warner Bros.

Biggest miss: “Speed Racer” ($43.9)

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Studio: Universal

Biggest miss: “Death Race” ($15.1)

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Studio: Sony

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Biggest miss: “Made of Honor” ($46)

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Studio: Disney

Biggest miss: “Swing Vote” ($15.5)

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Studio: Fox

Biggest miss: “Meet Dave” ($11.7)

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Domestic box-office figures in millions. Source: Box Office Mojo


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