Behind summer’s cooling trend

It may be an honest admission that Hollywood finally has run out of ideas, but this week’s announcement that DreamWorks is developing a movie based on the View-Master couldn’t come at a more fitting moment: Brand names people have heard of -- even those associated with a simple toy -- now mean more to a film’s success than $20-million stars.

The summer movie season is more than halfway over and a vacation season that started off hot -- “Star Trek,” “The Hangover,” “Up” -- has now cooled considerably. Despite the fast start to the year’s ticket sales, seasonal returns are now up only 5% since May 1, compared with a year ago.

Given how spectacularly several expensive star vehicles crashed (the smoldering wreckage is topped by Will Ferrell’s “Land of the Lost” and Eddie Murphy’s “Imagine That”) and how even some heavily touted franchises are doing worse than their predecessors (“Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” “Angels & Demons” and “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”), a movie based on the old 3-D slide viewer might be as good a bet as anything else.

The next wave of upcoming movies may improve the summer’s overall performance. Friday’s Sacha Baron Cohen comedy “Bruno” will likely open in first place, July 15’s boy wizard sequel “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” will certainly sell a ton of tickets, July 24’s guinea pig spy story “G-Force” should appeal to families and Aug. 7’s militaristic action fest “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” could attract a flood of young men. There also might be a sleeper hit or two around the corner: Aug. 7’s cooking and writing comedy “Julie & Julia” and the Aug. 14 genre thriller “District 9" among the likeliest break-outs.


But even at this point, the summer is telling a number of lessons.

Audiences are voting with their e-mail, texts and cellphones

According to figures collected by the tracking firm Box Office Mojo, the box office gross of the average summer movie this year fell nearly 52% from its opening weekend to its second weekend -- the sharpest drop-off in summer history. Those fall-offs provide the clearest evidence yet that playability -- the test of how much an audience actually likes a movie and will recommend it to their friends -- has eclipsed marketability, or how easily a movie’s concept can be sold. The summer’s most profitable release yet, Warner Bros. $35-million comedy “The Hangover,” benefited most from fervent word of mouth. In its second weekend, the R-rated comedy fell just 27%, and a mere 18.5% the following week. The studio’s “Terminator Salvation” opened well enough but promptly fell off a cliff, collapsing more than 61% in its second weekend, while Fox’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” nose-dived even worse than General Motors stock, plunging 69% in its second weekend.

The adult, star-driven drama is officially an endangered species


The spring was hard on several highbrow dramas aimed at older moviegoers, as Russell Crowe’s “State of Play” and Julia Roberts’ “Duplicity” labored to attract ticket buyers. Tom Hanks’ “Angels & Demons” is hardly a flop, having grossed more than $131 million domestically and well more than double that overseas. But the Sony franchise’s predecessor, “The Da Vinci Code,” grossed more than $217 million domestically, with far worse reviews than “Angels & Demons” received. Denzel Washington and John Travolta’s “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" is no blockbuster for Sony either, Johnny Depp’s “Public Enemies” faces a crucial test for Universal this weekend, its second in theaters, and Adam Sandler’s “Funny People” could be a tough July 31 premiere for Universal.

The only grown-up drama showing steady (if very modest) returns is Focus Features’ “Away We Go,” the Sam Mendes-directed comic drama that could approach a total gross of $9 million this weekend. With no pricey stars, it didn’t cost much to make -- about $17 million, and should manage a good profit when overseas sales are counted. It was hardly a shock, then, that in the middle of the summer Sony pulled the plug on “Moneyball,” a $58-million Brad Pitt baseball biography directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Critics can help in only one direction, and less than before

Only if reviewers were mistakenly shown “Plan 9 From Outer Space” could Paramount’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” have collected worse notices. But even with some of the poorest marks of the summer, director Michael Bay’s “Transformers” sequel enjoyed the second-best five-day opening in Hollywood history, narrowly missing the record set by last summer’s “The Dark Knight.” Loyalists clearly loved the dueling robot epic, giving it even better exit poll marks than fans did Paramount’s “Star Trek.” Though great reviews and equally positive word-of-mouth clearly helped the performance of “Star Trek,” Disney’s “Up” and the good openings for “Public Enemies” and Summit’s “The Hurt Locker,” the overwhelmingly positive notices for “Sugar” ($1.1 million) and “Tyson” ($858,000) couldn’t quite turn those late-spring Sony Pictures Classics releases into art-house hits that would play through the summer.


Old formulas are just that -- old

Just a few years back, Eddie Murphy in a family comedy was as sure a thing as anything in Hollywood. His five total “Dr. Dolittle,” “Nutty Professor” and “Daddy Day Care” movies all grossed more than $100 million domestically. But “Imagine That” may not get past $16 million. Similarly, Will Ferrell’s racier “Step Brothers,” “Blades of Glory” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” comedies all surpassed the $100-million mark. But his “Land of the Lost” disappeared soon after arrival, and the costly comedy (at $100 million, more than the cost of Ferrell’s previous hits and three times the budget of “The Hangover”) will struggle to get to $50 million domestically.

Foreign audiences have different tastes

Even with some movies underperforming domestically, their foreign results in some cases have been astonishing. “Terminator Salvation” has doubled its domestic gross in international markets, and the ratio was even better for “Angels & Demons.” “Wolverine” has grossed more on foreign shores than it has here, as have Fox’s “Ice Age” and “Night at the Museum” sequels. Because foreign revenue almost always spells the difference between a film’s profit and loss, Paramount passed on a chance to make “Moneyball,” deciding that the film had zilch prospects outside the United States.


Women make a difference

Female ticket buyers made up nearly half of the audience for the supposedly male-appeal titles “The Hangover” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” At the same time, women moviegoers helped give Sandra Bullock’s Disney romantic comedy “The Proposal” the actress’ best opening weekend by a wide margin: $33.6 million, compared with her previous best debut, $17.6 million for “Premonition.” If women turn out for July 24’s “The Ugly Truth” and “Julie & Julia,” they could leave an even bigger mark on the summer season.