Hollywood gets the blues over summer of flops

WHAT started out as a diverse and potentially record-breaking summer movie schedule has turned out to be a costly disappointment. Hollywood is suffering the summertime blues.

US box office receipts are expected to decline this year for the first time since 1991. Though the season started strongly and for a few weeks outpaced last year's record-breaking $2.2bn (pounds 1.37bn) total, sales have been sliding consistently for five weeks and there are no potential blockbusters to buck the trend.

The traditional summer corridor between Memorial Day in May and Labor Day in September accounts for two-thirds of the yearly revenue of the film industry, and the box-office performance determines the future plans of the big studios.

Unlike last year, when The Lion King and Forrest Gump broke records, there have been no blockbusters this season.

"Every one of the big summer grossers is fading fast - there simply isn't anything that plays like Gump or Lion King this year," said Richard Blacklock, a theatre booking agent.

Before the summer, a bounty of big-budget features was predicted to lift sales above last year's total. Executives are blaming the shortfall on too many movies crammed into too short a period. The result has been that films like Pocahontas cannibalised Apollo 13, which cut into Batman Forever, and so on.

Rising production and marketing costs have also trimmed profit margins for the studios, though analysts say that much of the shortfall can be redeemed through international sales, which now account for nearly half of the industry's revenue.

Only Batman, Apollo 13 and Pocahontas have grossed more than $100m. No less than eight films hit that benchmark last year. The large number of movies in every genre seems to have confused rather than inspired audiences and created a glut of mid-range films that have taken $50m-$100m. In a less crowded year, say analysts, many of them could have done better.

"People want to make more and more films, which is hard for marketing and hard for audiences," Buffy Shutt, head of marketing at Universal, told the Wall Street Journal.

Two of this year's major disappointments have been Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone, and Waterworld, Kevin Costner's $225m sea epic. Neither has performed well in the theatres. Waterworld has only managed to recoup $40m three weeks after opening. It is now unlikely that studios will automatically approve actor-driven action-pictures in future.

One notable absence from cinemas this year has been Harrison Ford, Hollywood's consis- tently highest-grossing talent. For the past two years he has starred in August blockbusters, Clear and Present Danger last year and The Fugitive the year before.

With four weeks of the season left the studios are already beginning to examine strategies and construct excuses. The most rarely heard, of course, is that the picture wasn't any good.