USA Today Summer Movie Rundown

Check out this USA Today article for a a rundown of the 'winners' and 'losers' of summer 2003--especially what they say about superhero movies. Here's just a bit...

"After Spider-Man set the industry on its ear with $408 million last year, stud
This was to be a summer like most in Hollywood, ruled by the schoolyard bullies. Big, violent, gun-toting franchises rolled into theaters with plans to strong-arm meeker movies and establish a new dominance by R-rated films.

And to some extent, they did. The Matrix Reloaded became the most popular R-rated film ever. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Bad Boys II overcame their prohibitive ratings to take in well over $100 million.

But when the dust settled this summer, it was the little guys running the playground. A fish called Nemo roughed up The One called Neo. A skinny newscaster gave a muscle-bound cyborg his comeuppance. And a band of bickering, malnourished pirates showed two trash-talking cops that the sword is mightier than the 9-millimeter.

For all of the surprises and upsets, summer still managed to be a modest hit. Ticket sales have reached a record $3.6 billion for summer, but rising ticket prices account for the jump. About 11 million fewer tickets were sold this summer compared with last. Still, with the final installments of the Matrix and The Lord of the Rings trilogies still on tap, the year may wind up coming closer to last year's ticket sales than anyone expected.

Last summer the studio was set back on its heels after serving up such duds as The Country Bears and Bad Company. A few months later, its disastrous Treasure Planet prompted some pundits to say the kingdom had fallen. But the Mouse came roaring back this summer with unexpected hits that left even rival studios singing Disney's praises.

"You have to hand it to them," says Rob Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount Studios. "Everything they've done this summer has been smart, from choosing the films to marketing them."

The comeback began with Holes, a $39 million film that opened in April and kept rolling through summer until it took in twice that much. Since then, the studio has struck gold with virtually every movie, regardless of genre. Even its forays into the Western (Open Range) and campy remakes (Freaky Friday) have proved profitable. Disney has yet to open a film this summer that did not eclipse analysts' predictions, and $1 out of every $5 spent at theaters has been for a Disney film this season.

"We hate to see summer end," says Disney chairman Dick Cook, whose studio crossed the $1 billion mark in ticket sales in July, three months faster than it did last year. "I'd like to say we planned for all this, but the stars were just aligned for us."

There was a time when Hook was the standard by which pirate films were measured, and seafaring movies were best left to the reruns of cable TV.

No more. Nemo, Pirates of the Caribbean and Whale Rider have lured audiences back to the seas. All three films opened to critical acclaim and have hooked $590 million in the USA alone.

The reason? Audiences are outer-spaced-out with science fiction films, and the ocean remains a mysterious place the movies of old couldn't quite replicate. "Today, technology allows you to do any genre well if you've got a good script," says Tom Sherak, co-founder of Revolution Studios. "People said pirate films were dead, and look what happened. We even got surprise hits with a cowboy movie (Range) and a horse movie (Seabiscuit). We hit the trifecta of taboos."

Studios also made some savvy decisions in this year's ocean fare. When Disney gave the green light to Pirates, studio execs decided to keep their unofficial ban on coarse language and sexual content.

"But we wanted to push the envelope a little with the action," Disney chairman Dick Cook says. "And we wanted serious, acclaimed actors in the key roles." The result: The horror and special effects element drew the teens, Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush drew the adults, and Pirates drew $261 million and counting.

The only blemish: Sinbad: The Legend of the Seven Seas. More on that later.

Who wants to see a 2½-hour film about a remote New Zealand fishing village? Or a French film about a British author with writer's block and her wanton housemate? Apparently, millions of moviegoers, who helped drive this summer's small films to their most successful season in years.

From Whale Rider to Swimming Pool, audiences made unexpected choices at the box office, driving those films to take in up to five times what they cost to make.

Rider, for instance, did $14.5 million in the USA. While that would barely cover a special effect for The Matrix Reloaded, Rider cost only $3.5 million, producing the type of returns studios salivate over.

Horror was an even bigger hit. 28 Days Later featured a no-name cast and a paltry $8 million budget. Yet it has snatched $43.6 million so far, one of the best returns on an investment this season.

"The market showed real independence in what it wanted to see this summer," says Universal Studios' Marc Schmuger. "People didn't let marketers decide for them."

Congress and conservative talk show hosts love to slam Hollywood for what they say is its lack of family values and moral conviction. But Tinseltown put out a spate of movies celebrating the power of faith, and the profits are making believers out of studio executives.

Jim Carrey always has been box office gold when he's funny, but no one expected his religious experience in Bruce Almighty to claim $240 million. Nemo's story of a fish who summons the courage to cross an ocean, battle sharks and find his son may be the biggest box office hit of the year, let alone summer. And Seabiscuit championed the message that a healthy spirit can overcome a broken body. "These movies are so well received because they're in such dramatic contrast to what's normally been out there," says Universal Studios vice chairman Marc Schmuger. "You'll see a greater inclination to make these kinds of movies. Decision-makers will see the economic potential after this summer."

Don't believe the hype: The sequel isn't dead. It was just slightly wounded.

The Matrix Reloaded took in more in three weeks than the original made in its entire run. Terminator 3 and Legally Blonde 2 were perceived as disappointments, even though T3's $148 million and Blonde's $88 million put them comfortably in the black. Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over just crossed the $100 million mark. And four of the top 10 films so far this year are summer sequels.

Only Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, which has taken in $98 million, and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, which has done $61 million, will fall millions short of their budgets. Their only hope is to make up the money in international releases and home video.

"It seems this summer that we had more movies that didn't do as well as their hype," Universal's Schmuger says. "Bu
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USA Today