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Hollywood Analysis: Closer to normal

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Nov. 19, 2001 at 8:36 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 19 (UPI) -- There were more signs this week -- some obvious, others not so easily picked up -- that the entertainment industry was returning to normal, nearly 10 weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Exhibit A is the box-office record-shattering performance of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," which hauled in an estimated $93.5 million Friday, Saturday and Sunday -- the largest three-day opening ever, holiday or non-holiday, for a movie of any kind.

"Potter" is so hot, in its first three days it snagged the top three spots for biggest single-day box-office performances ever, and was expected to go over the $100 million mark on Monday, its fourth day in release. If it manages that, it will get to that milestone one day faster than the previous record-holder, "Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace."

If anyone was still wondering how long it would be, post-Sept. 11, until Americans were emotionally ready to give themselves over once again to entertainment, "Harry Potter" pretty much tells the story there.

Consumer spending has been another major question mark in the new "everything-has-changed" world, and once again "Potter" shows evidence that Americans have some discretionary income and they're not afraid to spend it. A trip to the movies might not be the functional equivalent of a trip to Disney World, but economic recovery has to start somewhere

Megabucks box-office for "Harry Potter" will likely work magic on Warner Bros.' bottom line -- not to mention that of the studio's parent company, AOL Time Warner. It also helps other studios, according to Hollywood conventional wisdom, which holds that a blockbuster attracts business for other pictures playing at the multiplexes.

Not that "Monsters, Inc.," for example, needed the help.

While "Potter" got all the ink for its box-office performance this weekend, the newest Disney-Pixar computer animation project grossed $23.1 million in its third weekend in release. That kind of number is strong enough for a No.1 finish on many weekends throughout the year.

"Monsters" has grossed $156.7 million in three weeks. If it plays well enough over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend, it could crack into the list of the top 50 biggest U.S. box-office movies of all time by next Sunday.

In any event, "Monsters" has written a new chapter in the success story of the Disney-Pixar partnership -- but it has done so in a more challenging economic and emotional environment than the one in which "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" thrived.

More than that, "Monsters" disregarded the general anxiety that seemed to affect Hollywood decision-makers post-Sept. 11, causing them to postpone the openings of terror-themed movies -- including Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Collateral Damage" and Tim Allen's "Big Trouble," both of which were rescheduled for 2002.

"Monsters, Inc.," at its core, laughs at terror. Grownups could agree among themselves that the imaginary terror of monsters in a child's closet is nothing compared to the real terror of al Qaida, but try making that argument to the terrified child.

When fear is in play, rationality only carries your case so far.

The story of one culture, which feeds on the fear of another, as depicted in "Monsters, Inc.," may not provide a thoroughly consistent analogy to America's current bout with anxiety over terrorism. But given the type of decision making going on in Hollywood over the past two months, the choice to go forward as planned with "Monsters, Inc." stands out.

In a way, the decision exemplifies one of the main points of "Monsters" -- that you cannot overcome your fears if you do not stand up to them and take them on.

On his newest HBO comedy special Saturday, George Carlin offered a provocative take on the Sept. 11 attack.

During a diatribe against religion, Carlin lumped the World Trade Center attack in with the Crusades and the Inquisition on a list of atrocities committed in the name of religion.

His point may be debatable, but the more interesting aspect of what he said has more to do with how little outrage has resulted from it.

On the day after the attacks, when Rev. Jerry Falwell publicly blamed liberal social policy for the tragedy, he came in for harsh criticism from the left and the right -- including even President Bush. Maybe Carlin's observation will yet produce some sort of argumentative response, but as of late Monday it had gone unchallenged.

Another sign that the entertainment industry is getting comfortable once again with pre-Sept. 11 topics and themes comes in the new Fox-TV series, "24," which featured the mid-air explosion of a passenger jetliner -- although producers reportedly chose not to show the actual explosion, settling for references to the disaster through dialogue in subsequent scenes.

Not only did the 747 explode, it did so as a direct result of a conspiracy against the life of a presidential candidate. In other words, innocent passengers and crew were sacrificed to the political agenda of a small group of fanatics.

The incident occurred in the season premiere of "24" on Nov. 6 -- 56 days after the real-life sacrifice of thousands of innocents to the political agenda of a small group of fanatics.

There is no objective way to determine whether 56 days constitutes a decent interval between the real-life tragedy and the airing of a fiction that keeps painful images and memories on the nation's TV screens.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, some media critics and scholars suggested that we would have to develop new vocabularies to avoid offensive contact with the public's newly exposed emotional nerve endings.

Yet, less than one month after the attacks -- after the New York Yankees eliminated the Oakland A's in the first round of the American League baseball playoffs -- Yankee third baseman Scott Brosius told ESPN radio that the upcoming series with the Seattle Mariners would be "a war."

The moment was little noted. It is not destined to be long remembered. But it does help illustrate how resilient the public is and how quickly people can recover from tragedy and get on with the business of living.

The same can be said for Warner Bros.' decision, announced last week, to release "Collateral Damage" in February.

Studio executives said the decision was based on the results of a test screening, in which a focus group gave thumbs up to the project.

In the end, it is the marketplace -- not the government, and certainly not its own sense of altruism -- that will guide Hollywood.

The entertainment business -- as much as any other commercial institution -- has always been and will continue to be focused on the bottom line through a "what have you done for me lately?" prism.

"Harry Potter's" gaudy numbers virtually ensure that 2001 will be a record-breaking year for the U.S. box-office -- which was doing very well pre-Sept. 11 and continued to enjoy robust health after the attacks.

At the rate the box-office is going, Americans will have spent more than $8 billion on movie tickets this year, up from last year's record of $7.7 billion.

In these heady days of "Harry Potter"-sized box-office numbers, Hollywood is reacquainting itself daily with one of capitalism's oldest axioms: When business is good, nothing is bad.

© 2001 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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