Hollywood is having its hottest summer ever, fueled by nearly $400 million from "Star Wars The Phantom Menace" and five other films that have blown past the coveted $100 million mark domestically.

Since mid-May, the summer box office stands at more than $1.6 billion, up 7 percent over last year, according to Reel Source Inc., which charts box-office returns.

Especially striking is that the studios have released about a dozen fewer films this summer than last meaning that the average per-film gross is considerably higher than in 1998.

"This should be another record year without a doubt," said Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source. "There is so much diversity in the marketplace. The first part of the summer was comedy or sci-fi for the teens. Now there are more films coming out for adults and young adults. It's become a summer for everybody."

Among the major hits is Twentieth Century Fox's "Star Wars" sequel, which could end up grossing more than $450 million by the end of the season. Others are the unstoppable Adam Sandler and his comedy "Big Daddy" for Sony Entertainment Pictures, at nearly $140 million, and Universal Studios' "The Mummy," at more than $150 million. New Line Cinema's "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" has grossed nearly $200 million, while Walt Disney Co. returned to animation success with "Tarzan," which has swung into the theaters with nearly $140 million.

Even Warner Bros.' disappointing "Wild Wild West," with a bloated budget believed to be in excess of $150 million, looks likely to break the $100 million mark. So far, it is at $85 million.

At mid-summer, certain trends have surfaced.

Gone are action films like last year's "Godzilla," Sony's disappointing big-budget yarn, and Warner's "The Avengers."

Replacing them are teen-oriented films, especially gross-out comedies like "South Park," which has generated more than $45 million for Paramount Pictures but cost less that $10 million to make.

Teen power could play a big role in the success of one micro-budgeted independent film. Artisan's teen-oriented horror movie "The Blair Witch Project," which cost just $60,000 to make, grossed $1.5 million at 27 theaters during its first week giving it a staggering $56,000 per-screen average. The film was released nationwide last weekend.

"The audience is getting younger," said Tom Sherak, chairman of Fox's domestic film group. "By 2002 and 2003, there will be more teens than ever in the history of America. Those teens are buyers, and they have tastes that need to be fulfilled."

As for the demise of action films, Sherak said: "Certain films go on hiatus. You will see more of those if they work. Remember when there were no horror movies? Now you have 'The Haunting,' 'Lake Placid' and 'Deep Blue Sea.' "

Another studio executive said the trend is not as abrupt as it looks. Two years ago, the studios saw there was a potential for grabbing the 12- to 18-year-old market, based on the success of "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer."

"(Teen-agers) said, 'Hello, we're here,' and we recognized that," he said.

But there are other certainties that have been confirmed this summer. Some stars remain critic-proof including Tom Cruise, despite mixed reviews for "Eyes Wide Shut," which grossed $22 million opening weekend.

Also ducking the critics' bullet is John Travolta, whose thriller "The General's Daughter" has brought in nearly $88 million for Paramount, despite mixed reviews.

Julia Roberts, Hollywood's highest paid actress at more than $20 million per film, remains highly bankable, given the success of Universal's "Notting Hill," which has grossed more than $106 million. She returns with Richard Gere on July 30 in Paramount's romantic comedy "The Runaway Bride."

Some insiders speculate that the "Star Wars" sequel has generated extra interest in this summer's lineup. "Movie-going is a habit," Sherak said. "When films come out that people like, it becomes contagious."

But the "Star Wars" sequel had another impact. Fox's competitors were so frightened about its drawing power that they pulled their films out of competition. This meant that the early summer months were not as crowded as in previous years. It gave other films a chance to find an audience, Sherak said, adding, "All have been doing well."

In this atmosphere, one genre that has done especially well is the art-house movie, like MGM's "Tea with Mussolini," which breathed new life into Cher's acting career; Fox Searchlight's "Midsummer Night's Dream;" and Miramax's "An Ideal Husband." The three low-budget films' combined gross is nearly $45 million.

"There is room for movies like this," Sherak said. "The thing about them is that although they don't do huge business, they hold on and have a loyal following."

Harold Vogel, a New York-based analyst, cited another big factor for the surging box office weather.

"It's been very hot on the East Coast and people have been hit by heat wave after heat wave," Vogel said. "It's like it was in the 1940s and 1950s. People go to the movies to cool off."

Among the films waiting to be released over the next several weeks are Disney's "Sixth Sense," starring Bruce Willis; New Line's "The Astronaut's Wife," starring Johnny Depp; Universal's "Bow Finger," starring Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy; and Warner Bros.' "Iron Giant."

"The box-office pace should stay steady for the rest of the summer, depending on what happens over the next few weeks when competition increases," said Bucksbaum.

If last summer helped quell the rush for big action adventures and paved the way for gross-out comedies, what's in the pipeline for next year? Ironically, the studios are hearkening back to the days of the action hero.

Among the big-budget films being readied for next summer are Paramount's "Mission Impossible 2" and DreamWorks SKG's thriller "Minority Report," both of which star Cruise. Warner Bros. has Clint Eastwood's "Space Cowboys," which he directs and stars in, and "The Perfect Storm," based on the recent bestseller. Sony has "Charlie's Angels" and "The Patriot," which stars Mel Gibson.

Why are these expensive movies still being made? "When they work," Sherak said, "they are big movies."

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