Fox flies in face of summer slump

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Winner: 20th Century Fox. Loser: Sony Pictures Entertainment.

That's how the long, hot and lackadaisical summer is shaking out so far at the box office, where attendance is down 8% this year from last and off 10% from last summer. The much-discussed slump has buffeted all the major studios, where executives have tried and often failed to find the right mix of product and marketing to draw in fans.

In addition to Fox, winners so far include Viacom's Paramount, Time Warner's Warner Bros. and New Line, propelled by a mix of action, family flicks and raunchy comedies. NBC Universal's Universal Pictures and Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Pictures haven't matched their hits from last summer, and DreamWorks has been hard hit by an expensive late summer flop in "The Island." Sony, which was riding high last summer with "Spider-Man 2," has had four duds in a row, dropping it drastically from third to eighth in market share.

With several weeks left until Labor Day, the official close of summer, sleepers could emerge and market share could shift, though not likely enough to change the fortunes of the studios that are struggling most.

"The biggest challenge, particularly in summer when there are back-to-back event movies, is how to stand out," said Pam Levine, Fox's co-president of domestic theatrical marketing. "You have to promise something unique that fills a void in the marketplace."

Fox, driven by Lucasfilm's "Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith," "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" and "Fantastic Four," managed to do so, pulling in $736.3 million this summer. Ms. Levine credits promotional partnerships with marketers Samsung, Burger King and SBC with helping to launch the comic book-based "Fantastic Four," noting that the movie shows that Fox can have a good time with a popcorn flick, and the promotions reflected that attitude. A hit film also means broad exposure for the trailers of the studio's upcoming releases, which are stacked in front of movies like "Star Wars."

Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, thinks that regardless of the studio distributor, audiences are suffering "blockbuster burnout," rejecting unknown entities like "The Island" and "Stealth" in favor of family-friendly "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and comedy "Wedding Crashers" that have good word-of-mouth. "People are not willing to bet the price of a ticket unless they have a comfort level," Mr. Dergarabedian said. "The top movies have been validated."

Paramount Pictures, with new leadership in place but a movie slate developed by the previous regime, has been buoyed by Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" and the remake of "The Longest Yard." Those hits have offset the underperformance of two retreads, the not-so-kid-friendly "Bad News Bears" and "The Honeymooners."

New studio head Brad Grey's first acquisition, the Memphis-set pimp movie "Hustle & Flow," has racked up one of the highest per-screen averages in the top dozen box office performers. The movie, bought at Sundance for a record $9 million, is a solid beginning to Mr. Grey's tenure, industry watchers said, bringing in $14.6 million for specialty division Paramount Classics.

Warner Bros., once a no-show in children's movies, has solidified its place as a family-friendly studio with the success of "Charlie." Added to its "Harry Potter" franchise, "Charlie" has paved the way for the studio's further leap into kids' entertainment. (Computer-generated "Happy Feet" is on the horizon.) The studio also scored big by revisiting a classic comic. "Batman Begins," the first Batman movie in eight years, has revived the franchise with nearly $200 million in domestic box office.

DreamWorks has dropped in market share this summer, with its animation studio's "Madagascar" performing well but not up to the lofty heights of last summer's "Shrek 2." The animation division, spun off into its own company, also has taken a hit from Wall Street because executives overestimated DVD sales on "Shrek 2" and "Shark Tale." Stock price plunged, shareholders filed class-action lawsuits and the Securities and Exchange Commission launched an investigation.


Its live-action studio could merge with NBC Universal, with executives close to the situation saying talks are ongoing for DreamWorks SKG to become part of the larger studio. The two companies already partner for film and DVD distribution and TV production. The move would effectively dismantle DreamWorks SKG, which launched nearly a dozen years ago as a multi-media conglomerate with music, film and TV divisions. The music unit was sold two years ago, and DreamWorks produces only a few TV shows.

The talks are taking place at a time when DreamWorks recently opened one of the biggest flops of the season, "The Island," a Michael Bay sci-fi action film that has recouped only a fraction of its $120 million production budget. The movie, co-financed by Warner Bros., has made an anemic $24 million.

Universal Pictures retains its fifth place in market share from last summer. The studio launched this summer with a disappointing "Cinderella Man," though its $18 million opening doesn't look so bad in retrospect. Even the horror genre, a recent box office sure-shot, failed to bring in audiences, with "Land of the Dead" earning only $20 million during its run. The studio is hoping that the upcoming R-rated comedy "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" can be its "Wedding Crashers."


Sony, meanwhile, is reeling from four straight box-office bombs, including "Stealth," which cost $120 million to make and drew only $13.5 million in its opening weekend. "XXX: State of the Union," "Bewitched" and "Lords of Dogtown" also underperformed. The studio's woes come at a time of turbulence for the larger company. Sony BMG music recently was fined $10 million in a payola scandal in New York, with the Federal Communications Commission investigating. The parent company reported a loss for the second consecutive quarter, lowering its yearly projections by 88%. The studio makes up only a small part of Sony's business.

Buena Vista, though it's had small successes with "Herbie: Fully Loaded" and "Sky High," has had no match for last summer's thriller "The Village," and none of the animated hits that have punctuated its recent summers.

"We're in a slump, and it makes me wonder how courageous people at the top of the studios are willing to be," said Paula Silver, former president of marketing at Columbia Pictures and now a marketing consultant on independent films. "Originality used to be rewarded, but now people are looking for brands."

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