Staff Reporter

It's not even close to the end of spring, but for Hollywood, summer started last weekend.

A couple years ago, Memorial Day weekend was considered the official start of Hollywood's summer season, but studios have been pulling out their big guns earlier and earlier in a bid to get a jump on the competition. Hence the decision by DreamWorks SKG to release its mega-budget flick "Gladiator" last weekend, counter-programmed by Sony Pictures Entertainment's "I Dreamed of Africa," starring Kim Basinger.

It's a good bet that this year's summer slate will set a new box-office record, eclipsing the $3.2 billion generated during the big season a year ago. Hollywood trade paper Variety has projected a $3.8 billion payday, while Robert Bucksbaum, president of box-office tracking firm Reel Source Inc., expects this summer's take to be at least 10 percent higher than last year's.

Brad Bull, president of domestic theatrical marketing with Warner Bros. Pictures, predicts that the week of July 4 alone could generate $240 million.

The studios' domestic grosses are already running 9 percent ahead of last year's box-office pace.

A critical season

All of this is good news for moviemakers because at least 40 percent of the year's box-office grosses are generated during the summer.

"The summer accounts for just 25 percent of the year, but nearly half the box office," said Hal Vogel, a veteran entertainment analyst.

Why? "The kids are out of school and parents are on vacation," said Mike Medavoy, chairman of Phoenix Pictures. "It's the biggest time of the year outside the Christmas holiday season."

But here's the rub. There's no "Star Wars" sequel like last year's "Phantom Menace," which pulled in $400 million, to pump up the box office. That means that more films have to do better at the ticket window.

In addition, there will be only 40 wide-released films between May 1 and Labor Day, down from 48 last year.

"There is no 800-pound gorilla this summer," said Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox Film Group. "There are lots of films opening on a level playing field."

Bucksbaum predicts that four films Walt Disney Co.'s animated "Dinosaurs," Paramount Pictures' "Mission: Impossible 2," DreamWorks' "Gladiator" and Warner Bros.' "The Perfect Storm" will generate more than $600 million combined.

And that's not counting 20th Century Fox, which is expected to have the best summer of all the major studios.

"Fox, which is ranked ninth in market share right now, could have the best summer in years," Bucksbaum said.

Among Fox's expected hits are "Big Momma's House," a comedy starring Martin Lawrence; the animated sci-fi thriller "Titan A.E.;" and "X-Men," a live-action yarn based on the successful comic book series.

This summer will have its share of sequels, like Paramount's "Mission: Impossible 2," Universal Pictures' "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps," and Warner Bros.' "Pokemon the Movie 2000."

There are also 25 comedies being released this summer, in part because the studios are trying to replicate the success of Fox's "There's Something About Mary," which cost about $25 million to produce and grossed $175 million domestically.

"Comedy is king," Sherak said. "Everybody wants a good comedy. It can play forever. They're a lot cheaper than special-effects movies or animation, and can have a huge payout."

Action makes a comeback

Another trend for this summer: Big action-adventure films are back after a layoff last summer in the wake of the Sony's disappointing big-budget monster film "Godzilla" in 1998, and the fear of competing against "Phantom Menace."

"Bigger, they think, is better," said financial analyst Vogel. "It's the nature of the movie business. Last year, everybody ran away from making them because of 'Phantom Menace.'"

But this year's action films are a little different than many of the special-effects extravaganzas of past summers. "Gladiator" and Sony's "The Patriot" starring Mel Gibson are period pieces, the former set in ancient Rome and the latter during the American Revolution both arenas that Hollywood hasn't touched in years.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros.' "The Perfect Storm" starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg is based on the nonfiction best seller about a fishing boat caught in a terrifying gale. Many people are already referring to the film as the new "Twister."

Warner Bros. also has more-traditional special-effects films in "Battlefield Earth," a sci-fi yarn starring John Travolta and based on an L. Ron Hubbard novel, and "Space Cowboys" starring Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland in a rescue mission in outer space.

And, of course, there will be traditional action yarns like Disney's "Gone in 60 Seconds," a car theft thriller that reunites Nicholas Cage with adrenaline-pumping producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who cast the actor in the blockbuster hit "Con Air."

The summer of 2000 will also find the studios turning to animation once again, with seven releases. Disney's "Dinosaur" has been getting a lot of attention with its use of computer-generated beasts set against live-action backgrounds. Other animated releases include "Titan A.E.," "Pokemon the Movie 2000" and the DreamWorks' claymation tale "Chicken Run."

One of the biggest headaches for the studios in the always-crowded summer season is running up against the premieres of multiple big-budget films on the same day. The week of July 4, for instance, finds "The Patriot," "Perfect Storm" and "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" debuting at the same time.

While the studios have been relentless about trimming production budgets (even though the average major studio release still costs $53 million to make), the battle to keep marketing costs down continues. Because there are less viewers of network television, studios are spreading their promotions across a wider canvass of cable, print ads and the Internet. Choreographing a shrewd marketing campaign will be one key to success in this highly competitive environment.

"Marketing is important," Sherak said. "The shelf life of a film is very short and any product that doesn't get out and open (respectably), you are off the screen in two weeks."

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