Blame it on the Atlanta Olympics.
Until all those pumped-and-perky athletes got beamed out on free TV, Hollywood had a direct bead on its biggest summer in history. As it ends up, the film industry, which sprinted into the season faster than ever - remember "Twister," "Mission: Impossible," "Independence Day"? - hobbled home through its worst August in three years. Overall finish: a tie for silver (with the summer of 1994) at $2.17 billion.
"The studios knew the Olympics and conventions might sap some attention, so they front-loaded the summer with blockbusters," says Douglas Gomery, who teaches the economics of cinema at the University of Maryland. "Sports and a bit of blockbuster fatigue pushed movies off the radar. A lot got lost in the process."
Of the many casualties were family fare such as "Harriet the Spy," "The Adventures of Pinocchio," "Kazaam," and "Flipper." Other movies with high expectations that did poorly were "Fled," a buddy action movie, and "Kingpin," a wacky comedy with Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid.
After its initial blitz, Hollywood just petered out in the quality category, critics and industry watchers say. Especially in the second half of summer, more than the usual number of movies were just plain badly conceived, derivative, or poorly executed.
Many feel pressure from Washington politicians and the Christian right in recent years has resulted in half-hearted attempts at films aimed at kids. Instead, they say, directors and writers should go back to family fare not aimed specifically at youngsters, such as hits like "Star Wars" that did well in the past.
Other films, such as Columbia Pictures' "Multiplicity," which rated off the charts with preview audiences, were considered victims of the Olympic challenge and the high number of movies being released all at once.
Following a trend that has been growing for several years, more movies than ever made it to the screen this summer: 50 major-studio releases and 55 independents. Compared with last year, more debuted as so-called "wide releases" (meaning 500 screens or more) this year: 46 compared with 41.
Driven by the income of record-breaking seasons past, with such megahits as "The Lion King" ($312 million) and "Forrest Gump" ($329 million), the trend is to spend more money on stars, special effects, and offbeat twists on tried-and-true ideas to come up with a winning formula.
In the process, studios end up cannibalizing one another with survival-of-the-fittest marketing. Movies increasingly need to make their mark with audiences in just two to five days or else be whisked out of theaters.
"The root of all of Hollywood's problems right now is having too much money to make too many movies," says Martin Grove, film columnist for the Hollywood Reporter. "Fewer movies would mean less competition, which would mean less money spent on marketing and promotion, and theaters could hold onto product longer because they would be less assured of new product coming in."
As they huddle to look at statistics of what made it and what went belly up, analysts here say some of this summer's lessons will translate into what makes it to your local cineplex in about two years.
"Once again we have a situation where the cost of entertainment content is not keeping up with revenues," says Chris Lanier, president of Motion Picture Intelligence, a Hollywood tracking firm. The $2.17 billion in box office reflects a 1 to 3 percent rise in ticket income, and the number of tickets sold dropped by 0.5 percent.
Profit margins are down about 15 percent - owing to the high cost of stars and special effects. "Studio executives will have to start looking at the costs of what they put on the screen compared to what it pulls in," says Lanier.
That means pressure in two directions: One, to come up with yet more special effects and star-driven blockbusters as insurance for other failures. Two, to find less expensive, more creative uses of content - say, for example, the choice of a scary hand from a closet to produce fright instead of a $200,000 exploding building.
In the first category, one economic trend within the industry bodes more pressure for big, high-concept thrillers and action adventures: expansion plans by major distributors. The large movie chains of United Artists, AMC Entertainment, Cineplex Odeon, Carmike, and Regal each have plans to build more than 100 screens, pushing the American domestic cinema theater count from 27,500 to 32,000.
Analysts say this translates into a need for big-event pictures year-round instead of just in the summer. Because exhibitors say their large multiplexes require two or three blockbusters at a time to act as magnets to draw audiences to smaller films, some critics predict a glut of homogenized films in coming seasons.
"There is still interest in low-budget movies, but the big studios no longer seem interested or able to provide them," says Jim Ericson, a cinema analyst at Wichita State University in Kansas.