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For Some, a Bummer of a Summer

By Ronald Grover As Hollywood's powerful prepare to jet off to the Hamptons, Europe, and other glamorous vacation spots, they're probably feeling pretty jaunty. And who can blame them? Thing are definitely looking up at the box office. In 2003, ticket sales fell 3% from the year before. This summer, ticket sales are up 14% over last summer, and double-digit growth for the year looks likely.

Sony (SNE) is swinging along with Spiderman 2, which is headed for an easy $350 million domestic take. Dreamworks has supersized its ambitions for an initial public offering thanks in large part to the success of Shrek 2, which has already done more than $430 million at home, the most ever for an animated flick. NBC/Universal (GE), which had been in something of a slump, is sizzling with a surprise monster hit in The Bourne Supremacy. It's closing in on $100 million at the U.S. box office, and looks like a cinch to pass the $128 million the first Bourne flick, The Bourne Identity, hit in 2002.

EVERYTHING'S RELATIVE. But a funny thing happened to some celluloid superstars on the way to the box office, most notably director Steven Spielberg, who directed this summer's The Terminal, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who offered up King Arthur. Both of these boys of summer have multiple blockbuster films to their credit, and in years past they have all but ruled the popcorn set from May through September. Indeed, some of Spielberg's biggest hits -- Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, were released in the summer months. Same for Bruckheimer, whose action-packed flicks have rolled up billions in U.S. summer ticket sales, from Armageddon to last year's $305 million blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean.

This year, however, Spielberg and Bruckheimer are among the also-rans, along with the perennial favorite Tom Hanks (who starred in The Terminal). Maybe the biggest surprise, though, is Halle Berry's dud, Catwoman. Warner Bros. usually does well with its cartoon-character movies. "It is a little disturbing," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "Summer films have to be relatable, and folks just weren't relating to what they were putting on the screen this year."

So, people weren't "relating." Is that just a nice way of saying that people just didn't like these summer movies? Even Bruckheimer admits as much. "I guess it's my turn to be in the penalty box this year," he says.

GOOD, NOT GREAT. Dergarabedian may be on to something, though. If there's one movie that has captured the mood of the movie-going public, it's Fahrenheit 911. Michael Moore's surprise hit takes President Bush to task audiences are eating up. Folks also flocked to I, Robot, the special effects-laden spectacle that make the flicks by Spielberg and Bruckheimer seem, well, dated.

There are plenty of other reasons why two of Hollywood's most bankable filmmakers turned in subpar -- for them -- efforts this time around. Spielberg's flick is a friendly little film that boasts a truly remarkable performance from Tom Hanks. But it's hardly what folks wait in line to see from arguably the finest director of our time. No, The Terminal is the kind of small picture that Dreamworks had once contemplated for the Italian zanyman Robert Benigni (Life is Beautiful), and for a director of lesser status that Spielberg.

"The reviews were mixed and that killed us," admits Spielberg's marketing assistant Marvin Levy. "Our audience reads reviews." What they read, Spielberg and company learned, was that the film was beneath their hero. Instead, on opening weekend, it got walloped by, of all things, Ben Stiller's brain-dead comedy Dodgeball. Spielberg's film will soon pass $76 million in the U.S. -- great for most directors, ho-hum for a great one.

SECOND CHANCE. Like Spielberg, Bruckheimer also may be a victim of his own success. The producer, who has such big-league hits as the Beverly Hills Cop movies and Top Gun to his credit, pretty much calls his shots at Disney (DIS), which desperately needed his film this year as it weathered one of its deepest slumps. But Bruckheimer wanted to do something different -- get away from the careening cars, hard-rock soundtracks, and beautiful babes that have made him Hollywood's most successful producer. A history buff, he says fell in love with the "real" story of King Arthur -- a one-time Roman soldier who brings together warring tribes in England to fight off the Saxons.

Good story, but who thought of casting fresh beauty Keira Knightly and then covering her with mud, which more than distracts from her natural charms? And whose idea were the drizzly scenes and leaden dialogue? Where were the sizzling songs and flashy special effects that one expects from a Jerry Bruckheimer movie? Bruckheimer, who famously says he produces only what he likes, obviously lost his way on this one. He may like the movie, but not enough other people have. It has done a none-too-spiffy $45 million here is the U.S., which is well below Bruckheimer standards.

The good news for both Spielberg and Bruckheimer is that genius may take a vacation, but it hardly ever goes away for very long. Already, the duo is set to rake it in foreign markets, where Bruckheimer's King Arthur took the top-grossing position in six out of the seven markets in which opened overseas, according to Variety. And Spielberg's The Terminal is granted a prominent spot in the Sept. 1-11 Venice film festival, where it is sure to get a running start on its own foreign release. Fear not, famous names travel well.

TOUGH LESSON. There may be no such upside for Catwoman. The film, which critics slaughtered save for the skin-tight black leather outfit sprayed onto star Halle Berry, opened with a pathetic $16 million. In its second week, it was outgrossed on a per-screen basis by sleeper Napoleon Dynamite. And given Berry's success in the X-Men franchise and the James Bond flick Die Another Day, no one would have thought that Catwoman could be such a stinker.

No telling how things might have gone if Spielberg or Bruckheimer had stuck to their usual fare. Then again, there is one axiom that Hollywood proved all too well this summer, courtesy of Spielberg, Bruckheimer, and Catwoman: Where films are concerned, there ain't no such thing as a sure thing. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek

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