A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Multiplex

This summer, studios are discovering that less is more Tickets, Please

As Hollywood execs prepared for the summer of '99, they kept in mind this simple rule: If you still want to be a movie mogul in 2000, get out of the path of George Lucas' Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Even Stanley Kubrick, who died in March, had the foresight to insist that his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, open well after the Star Wars prequel's June release.

To Tinseltown's delight, the strategy has paid off in spades--even for movies with terrible reviews. While The Phantom Menace is headed for the outer reaches of $400 million at the box office, other films are getting a good share of what could be a record box-office summer. Halfway through July, five other films have grossed more than $100 million. New Line Cinema has a surprisingly large hit on its hands with the Austin Powers sequel, The Spy Who Shagged Me, which has brought in close to $200 million. Walt Disney Co.'s widely acclaimed animated feature, Tarzan, is already at $130 million. And even the universally panned Wild Wild West is closing fast on $100 million.

BREATHING ROOM. All in all, the take is up 28% over last year, says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office analyst Exhibitor Relations Co. And that's on far fewer films: In the first 10 weeks of the season, the larger studios released 18 films--10 fewer than last year, according to Exhibitor Relations.

That may be the most important statistic behind Hollywood's Summer of Success. Rather than squaring off against big-budget blockbusters coming out on each others' heels over just a few weekends, the studios were able to stay out of one another's way. "If you want to get noticed, it's always easier if you're the only one out there," says Jeff Blake, who heads Sony Corp.'s film-distribution unit. Sony's Adam Sandler hit, Big Daddy--again, with less-than-mediocre reviews--was the only one to open on June 25 and was able to pass the $100 million mark in a mere 10 days.

It might be too much to expect Hollywood to show this much self-restraint in moviemaking for long--although right now, studio chiefs are looking downright cheap. A wave of cost-cutting has swept the industry of late, with major studios like Disney and Warner Bros. Inc. cutting back on production or seeking partners to share the financial risk of making bigger-budget flicks. In the past several days, Arnold Schwarzenegger signed to make a film that will be jointly financed by Warner and Universal Studios Inc. "All of this has to help studios' cash flow, and it will," says John Tinker, a media analyst at Banc of America Securities.

Not only did Hollywood make fewer films in total, it scaled back dramatically on big-budget action movies---once the staple of summer moviegoing. That gave those movies that got made a better chance against The Phantom Menace. One big winner: Universal's The Mummy, released three weeks before Lucas' film, has already grossed more than $150 million.

CLASH OF TITANS. Still, there could be a few head-on collisions before Labor Day--23 films are still set to open. One to watch for: Nicole Kidman and hubby Tom Cruise in Warner's much-anticipated Eyes Wide Shut, vs. Julia Roberts and her Pretty Woman co-star, Richard Gere, in Paramount Pictures Inc.'s Runaway Bride.

So the new Hollywood doesn't sound all that different from the old one. But if the major studios heed the lesson that you can make more money by making fewer films, the industry just might discover a new motto to live by: Less is more. What a concept.

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