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Summer Mix of Brains, Brawn Sent Americans Flocking to the Movies

This summer, more Americans went to the movies than at any time in four decades, fueling a record $2.4 billion box office.

Summer box-office figures are just in and it's another all-time record: $2.4 billion in gross revenue over last summer's now-moldy record of $2.2 billion.

But if you're wondering why Hollywood keeps breaking box-office records despite your local critic's pronouncements that movies aren't getting any better, blame it on what analysts call the bodies-in-seats quotient.

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There are more movie screens out there than any time in American history (31,865, compared with 16,354 in 1958) - and there are more Americans to sit in front of them. The building of 2,000-plus screens between 1996 and 1997 was the highest one-year increase on record.

"The entire social experience of going to the movies in America has expanded," says Martin Grove, a cinema columnist for Hollywood Reporter and a movie analyst for CNN. "From suburban malls to inner-city multiplexes, people are confronted with more opportunity to see movies, be lured by movie trailers, and mix the experience conveniently with other activities from shopping, to dining, to baby-sitting."

There were more tickets sold for movies this summer than at any time since 1959. Given that average ticket prices are nine times as high now ($4.59 in 1997, compared with 68 cents in 1958), the statistic is even more impressive than the gross receipts. "The number of tickets sold this summer means that more Americans went to movies than at any time in four decades," says Jim Kozak, analyst for the National Association of Theater Owners.

BUT other factors besides movie quality may have contributed to this summer's box-office bounty, analysts say. After years of fighting and clawing over which movies get released on what weekend, studio heads are making more of an effort to coordinate schedules of like-minded offerings to allow slightly more time for each to find an audience.

Studios reaped the reward this summer: Six different studios each had a film in the Top 10. Nine films crossed the threshold of $100 million in tickets, and there were no huge blockbusters - such as 1994's "Forrest Gump" and "The Lion King" - to elbow all other offerings aside.

"Exhibitors and distributors dream about this kind of summer in which you had a broad cross section of films from family, to serious drama, to comedy, to action," says Bruce Corwin, spokesman for Metropolitan Theaters, based in Los Angeles. "Critically, the films were solid, not extraordinary, but since they covered a wide taste, they brought the people in."

The summer's tally might bode well for future movie seasons in the area of story- and character-driven dramas or comedies, as opposed to the special-effects-driven epics that have dominated recent movie years. "Neither 'Godzilla' nor 'Armageddon' did anywhere near expectation, while 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'There's Something About Mary' were the two big winners," says Douglas Gomery, who teaches the economics of cinema at the University of Maryland in College Park.

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"Private Ryan" used heavy doses of special effects, to be sure, but they were based on the historical realism of war, not futuristic fantasy. Moreover, the plot centered on military comrades forced into introspection about the price of war itself. "Mary," made for a relatively low $23 million, made about $120 million - a success critics say was based on the comedy's sheer zaniness.

Other critics say the thoughtful story line of "The Truman Show" and the family relationships of "Dr. Dolittle" were what placed them in the Top 10. Several smaller films with character-driven plots also did better than expected, while not reaching the Top 10. Among them: "Dance with Me," starring Vanessa L. Williams; "Next Stop, Wonderland," with Hope Davis; and "Henry Fool."

For some, the high box office receipts and attendance for summer 1998 are a signal that dire predictions about moviegoing voiced just a few years ago are over. "Ten years ago, we were hearing that moviegoing was outmoded, studios were going under, and people were dissatisfied with everything from bad movies to obstructed views and sticky floors," says Bill Karatozian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners. "We aren't hearing that anymore."

Others warn that even though box-office sales and attendance are at historic highs, so are the costs of making movies. Chris Lanier, president of Motion Picture Intelligencer, a firm that analyzes the economics of studios, says the cost of making movies went up 14 percent this summer over last, while receipts only went up 8 percent.

"The dirty little secret of the film industry is that profits are going down," says Mr. Lanier. Noting that Disney recently announced a cutback from 40 features a year to 14, Lanier says: "That is not usually a sign that you are making lots of money on all your films."

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