This Summer's Hollywood Loss Leaders


Think the success of blockbuster sequels to Spider-Man, Pirates, and Harry Potter means that all's well in Tinseltown? Think again

Hollywood power brokers are feeling mighty pleased with themselves these days as they head off to their summer places in the Hamptons, Europe, or wherever they spend their money and time through Labor Day. The box office, after some pretty lean years, is sizzling, powered by such megahits as the third installments of Shrek, Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean (plus a Transformers or Harry Potter movie here and there). According to the online site Box Office Mojo, movie receipts are up by 7.2% over last year and 13.7% over 2005.

So all's well in Tinseltown, right? Well, not quite. Sure, the box office looks swell from afar, but the DVD market is still sluggish, and piracy is always a lurking menace. And look a little deeper at those very robust box office numbers.

This year's haul is being powered by megahits, four of which have already passed $300 million in ticket sales, and another (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) that may limp across the $300 million threshold before the summer ends. Compare that with all of last year, when the receipts were more evenly distributed across the movie landscape. Indeed, only one film—the second Pirates of the Caribbean installment, with a final tally of $423 million—made it to the $300 million promised land.

In fact, this year Hollywood seems just as capable of making huge hits as it is of producing the kind of failures that make you cringe as if you're watching yet another George Romero zombie flick. So, while the moguls are happily sipping their Bellinis and savoring the big earns on the box-office lists, Power Lunch has decided to make the powerful feel humble by pointing out that they're still capable of creating the kind of stinkers that—without those hunkering hits—underscore just how close the industry always is to sinking back into box-office oblivion.

Hollywood's Bad Math

Hollywood's biggest boo-boo this year might well be the Universal Pictures flick Evan Almighty. So what if it's closing in on $100 million at the box office. With a budget hovering close to $200 million and the kind of marketing muscle usually reserved for Steven Spielberg, the General Electric (GE)-owned studio (and its poor private equity investors) likely will lose big on the flick. The moral, Hollywood: Not all sequels are created equal. Without Jim Carrey, the Bruce Almighty star whose singular brand of manic humor made the first one work, it's better to walk away.

Oh, yes, the Carrey original only cost $85 million to make in 2003. It's Hollywood math at its worst. Take away the star (who almost certainly was asking too much to reprise his role as God-for-a-day), find a replacement (Steve Carell) with nowhere near the talent for the role. Load up the film with special effects (and loads of animals) and bloat the budget. Then pray the audience buys it all. Note to Hollywood: They didn't.

Then, there's Stardust, the just released Paramount (VIA) fantasy film that stars Robert DeNiro as a cross-dressing pirate who roams the sky in search of lightning (don't ask) and Michelle Pfeiffer as a super-evil witch queen. The film is also Hollywood at its worst: Sign on a bunch of big names, give them a totally incomprehensible script, and expect moviegoers to figure it out. Well, that didn't happen either. And the film, made for somewhere north of $70 million, is DOA with less than $20 million in ticket sales. Who green-lights this stuff? At least Paramount was smart enough to spread the risk among other investors, so they will share the loss.

House of Horrors

There are plenty of other less-than-brilliant moviemaking decisions out there. The Weinstein Co. threw $70 million at two of its favorite directors, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, letting them make a grainy, choppy, blood-splattered duo of films, a double feature that Harvey and brother Bob packaged together as a movie called Grindhouse. It was a nod to the B-movie houses the brothers recall from their youth. Surprise, Harvey—not many folks share your enthusiasm for three-hour movies featuring a motorcycle-riding girl with a machine gun serving as a leg (yes, that's right).

For that matter, moviegoers aren't exactly lapping up Hollywood's latest fetish: big-name actors in second-rate horror flicks. Warner Bros. (TWX) threw big bucks (more than $10 million) at Nicole Kidman to star in The Invasion, a truly lame remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Last seen, the film was staggering, brain-dead like some of its lobotomized extras, toward serious red ink.

Hilary Swank (The Reaping) and Carrey (The Number 23) have had embarrassing turns this year starring in horror, thriller-type flicks that sold modestly, but far short of studio expectations with big names on the marquee.

So, Hollywood moguls, enjoy your summer vacations in Croatia (yes, it's a hot new vacation spot for the pampered) or wherever you're going. It has been a good year for some of you, especially those fortunate enough to have a sequel hanging around. But if you think that the box office is back, folks, think again. Next year: No Harry, no Spidey, no green hulking ogre—not even a punch-drunk pirate. And we can be fairly certain Universal isn't planning an Evan Almighty sequel.

Grover covers the media and entertainment industry for Bloomberg Businessweek in Los Angeles.

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