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Unique worlds, escapism, stars equals summer success

By Martin A. Grove
Summer successes: By this point in the summer it's possible to start making lists of what worked best at the boxoffice and attempting to explain why.

Despite exceptions like "Fahrenheit 9/11," some common denominators for this summer's successes are that they take us into their own unique worlds, are mostly set in either the past or the future, are usually star driven and typically offer moviegoers a means of escape from the grim realities of today's world.

These points apply to most but not all of the pictures that have enjoyed a high degree of success this summer. In search of factors that could account for their strength with moviegoers I focused on 10 movies that clearly have done very well since the pre-summer early weeks of May. The list includes: DreamWorks "Shrek 2," Columbia's "Spider-Man 2," Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," 20th Century Fox's "The Day After Tomorrow," Warner Bros.' "Troy," Universal's "Van Helsing," Fox's "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," Lions Gate, IFC and Fellowship Adventure Group's "Fahrenheit 9/11," DreamWorks' "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" and Fox's "I, Robot."

It's worth noting that some of these films sported such record setting mega-budgets that it's anyone's guess if they'll ever return a profit to the studios that financed them. Other films that aren't on today's list grossed less, but given their much lower production costs are likely to be more profitable than some of the bigger grossers. Nonetheless, what we're focusing on here today isn't profitability, but just selling tickets and what may have contributed to that.

Having already grossed $425 million-plus, "Shrek 2" is the summer's biggest hit to date. Depending on how "Spider-Man 2" winds up doing, "Shrek 2" could fall a notch to second place, but at the moment it's got a comfortable lead since the newer blockbuster's cume is now at $302 million-plus. As with any fairy tale, "Shrek 2" exists in its own fanciful world in a time that's clearly yesterday not today.

Being animated, of course, removes "Shrek 2" even more from the real world. In terms of offering escape, it's really just what the doctor ordered. If you're sitting in a movie theater watching this big green ogre and his bride journey to a land called Far Far Away to meet her King and Queen parents, you're not likely to be thinking about how the stock market closed today or about the latest developments in Iraq. With that in mind, it's really no wonder "Shrek 2" leads the boxoffice pack in terms of tickets sold to date.

Of course, that's not the only factor driving it at the boxoffice. It certainly doesn't hurt that it's the sequel to a 2001 blockbuster that grossed about $268 million domestically. It also helps that it features the very recognizable voices of such stars as Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy.

"Spider-Man 2's" $302 million-plus cume through last weekend is on its way to $400 million and possibly more. If it doesn't overtake "Shrek 2," it will almost certainly end up as the summer's second biggest blockbuster. Here, too, it's clearly a big help to be following on the heels of the 2002 original that grossed about $404 million domestically. The original film was driven more by its Marvel comic book title character than by its young and then rising stars, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. The sequel, however, is definitely star driven because the blockbuster original put Maguire and Dunst in the global media spotlight and elevated them to household name status.

Although this "Spidey" sequel takes place in Manhattan, it's a fantasy Manhattan with Spider-Man swinging through the canyons of steel and the villainous Doc Ock manipulating the tentacles fused to his body that now control his brain. When Spidey and Dock Ock wind up fighting on a Chicago-style elevated train, we're definitely not in the real world of New York City. It doesn't really matter, of course, because if you're watching "Spider-Man 2" you suspended disbelief as you walked into the theater. In the world we want to escape from for a few hours we don't see guys with super-powers leaping off skyscraper roofs.

In the case of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" we are once again back in the unique world of J. K. Rowling with its young wizards sharpening their skills at Hogwarts School. This, too, is a film that transports us to a time and place quite different from where we normally find ourselves. That, once again, is a blessing to anyone seeking escape and can be cited as one key element in the film's ability to generate over $238 million in domestic ticket sales.

As with "Spider-Man 2," this third episode in Warner's "Harry Potter" franchise is star driven in a way that the original was not. The film's three young stars (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) were unknowns when they were originally cast. By the second film stardom had found them forever (or, at least, until they turn into awkward teenagers).

On the face of it, "The Day After Tomorrow" is set in the real world. At least, the Manhattan in which it takes place is more like the city we know than the Manhattan of "Spider-Man 2" with its swinging superhero. "Tomorrow's" setting shows us familiar landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and the New York Public Library, but it tempers the familiar and contemporary with images of near-future global warming that results in worldwide devastation. That puts us squarely in the world of disaster epic movies, which is anything but the here-and-now that we return to after leaving the movie theater. In other words, the opportunities for escape that such films offer are among the best you can find.

With over $183 million to its credit domestically, "Tomorrow" is this summer's biggest original film. Like the three big sequels described above, "Tomorrow" benefits from taking us into a world the filmmakers have created and in which we can temporarily escape. It's not, however, a star driven film. However good actors Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal are, they're not boxoffice superstars, although the success of "Tomorrow" can be expected to work to their future advantage. Moviegoers are more likely to have turned out to see "Tomorrow" because they wanted to plunge into its unique world of climatological disaster and forget about the lousy day they just had at school or at the office.

"Troy" takes moviegoers back to 1200 B.C. and the Trojan War. It also evokes the world of the 1950s swords and sandals films and reminds us that we're not in Kansas anymore. Like any historical epic action adventure, this tale about the siege of the city of Troy takes place in its own world and time. We're instantly transported from the reality of today to the apparent reality of ancient Greece. With a domestic cume of over $132 million, it's clearly a voyage that many moviegoers were happy to make. Yet again, we're talking about being able to make a quick getaway from the cares of today.

Unlike "Tomorrow," "Troy" is definitely star-driven. There's Brad Pitt for starters, which is more than enough star power to satisfy moviegoers as well as the celebrity gobbling global media crowd. For younger moviegoers, there also are the rising stars Orlando Bloom and Eric Bana and for adult moviegoers there are the long established stars Peter O'Toole and Julie Christie. But in the best Hollywood tradition it's Pitt who's the driving force on the marquee.

"Van Helsing" is set in the late 19th Century and revolves around the efforts of the formerly obscure monster hunter Van Helsing to rid the world of such evil wretches as Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man. There's no question that here, too, we're entering a world that the filmmakers have created for us and into which we can escape however briefly. With about $120 million in domestic ticket sales, it's evident that a lot of moviegoers were happy to take advantage of the opportunity.

"Van Helsing" is more genre driven and less star driven than, say, "Troy." Hugh Jackman, who plays Van Helsing, is probably a bigger star on Broadway than in Hollywood these days thanks to his winning the 2004 best actor Tony for his performance as Peter Allen in "The Boy From Oz." "Van Helsing's" draw was more about being scared for a couple of hours than it was about catching up with superstars.

On the face of it, "Dodgeball: A True Underdog" is a contemporary comedy about competing dodgeball teams. That would differentiate it from the other summer hits described above that all transport us to different worlds. On the other hand, a case can be made that because dodgeball is so common an elementary school sport and one in which youngsters are physically hurt, humiliated and emotionally scarred, the movie takes us back to our childhood days. Looked at that way, it puts us in another time and another world mentally.

With $105 million-plus in grosses already, "Dodgeball" clearly resonated with its target youth audience. Like most of the summer's other big hits, it's star driven since Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn are both very popular guys with the under-25 crowd.

Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" is the exception that, perhaps, proves the rule about summer releases working that provided moviegoers with ways to escape reality. "Fahrenheit" is an in-your-face contemporary political documentary that plunges its audience into the here-and-now world of presidential politics, Iraq and the war on terrorism. If you want to escape from all that, "Fahrenheit's" clearly the wrong movie ticket to purchase.

On the other hand, with over $94 million in domestic ticket sales "Fahrenheit" is not having trouble finding people who are happy to stay in the world of grim reality this summer. The film shares in common with many of the summer's other hits that it is star driven -- in this case by Moore, whose skills at media manipulation have made him as instantly recognizable as many stars. At this point it looks like the film could get to about $110 million, but even that fence might get pushed back. At one time insiders were speculating about $75-80 million and then about $95-100 million. Maybe "Fahrenheit" is the dose of reality that brings people back to the present after enjoying their summer of escapism at the movies.

With "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" we're back in another time and another place. In this case, it's a 1970s local TV newsroom in San Diego. While that may not be quite as unique as, say, the worlds of Harry Potter or Spider-Man, it's a strange enough setting to fit in with other hits that transport audiences somewhere else.

With Will Ferrell in its lead role "Anchorman" is clearly a star driven film, at least for under-25 audiences. Having done about $57 million in its first 10 days of release and with a production cost of only about $26 million, "Anchorman" is likely to remain anchored in theaters for a long time this summer.

"I, Robot," which just opened to over $52 million, rounds out today's list of summer hits and fits the mold perfectly. It's set in the unique near future world of Chicago in the year 2035. It's star driven with Will Smith clearly a strong magnet for all four demographic quadrants. Fox said over the weekend that 51 percent of the audience was male and 51 percent was under-25, which is a great demographic split.

Sci-fi films are one of the most obvious forms of escape the movies can offer. Whether they're set in the future or in the past, they enable us to forget about the physical laws that rule our own universe today and to fantasize about what might be or, perhaps, what once was. Sci-fi typically skews more male and older than "Robot" did in Fox's opening weekend exit polls. With the degree of female appeal (presumably thanks to Smith) that "Robot" has, it's likely to be selling tickets for many weeks this summer.

Needless to say, there are no guarantees that all films that share these characteristics will work at the summer boxoffice. But it could be that it's a winning combination to offer escapism to unique worlds in another time and place plus big stars. It may not be enough to provide only some of those elements. "King Arthur," for instance, offered escape to ancient Britain, but that wasn't a voyage moviegoers wanted to take. And it wasn't star driven in terms of domestic audiences, which to an extent is reflected in its disappointing $38 million-plus gross for its first 12 days.

On the other hand, "The Terminal" was as star driven with Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a movie could possibly be these days. It was, however, contemporary and instead of offering escape revolved around its star's confinement in an airport. These days, people don't seem to want to spend any more time in airports than they absolutely have to and that may have played a part in keeping a lid on the film, which has done an okay but not satisfying $71 million-plus.

Martin Grove is seen Mondays at 9:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., PT on CNN FN's "The Biz" and is heard weekdays at 1:20 p.m. and 1:55 p.m. on KNX 1070 AM in Los Angeles.

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Copyright 2004 The Hollywood Reporter

Web exclusive: Martin Grove looks at the business of film via conversations with directors and producers. Grove also reports for CNN and KNX-AM Los Angeles. Posted Wednesdays and Fridays.

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