LOS ANGELES, Aug. 12 (UPI) -- The U.S. box office has provided one of the few bright spots during the long-running national economic slowdown, but there are signs that the movie business is beginning to huff and puff as the summer box-office seasons draws to a close.
The new Vin Diesel action picture "XXX" met analysts' expectations with an estimated $46 million in its opening weekend, but overall, the U.S. box office -- estimated at $144 million -- was down 10 percent from the same weekend last year. It was the fourth straight weekend that the box office was down from the corresponding weekend of 2001.
The box office is still running well ahead of last year's pace, but the lead is growing slimmer.
Year-to-date, overall grosses are 10 percent higher than they were up to this point in 2001. Just last week, the lead was 15 percent.
The $46 million opening for "XXX" was the third biggest August opening ever -- following only "Rush Hour 2," which opened with $67.4 million last year, and "Signs," which opened with $60.1 million last week.
It was the biggest opening yet for Diesel, a leading contender for the unofficial title of Hollywood's No. 1 action star. He became a star last summer when "The Fast and the Furious" opened with $40.1 million and went on to gross $144.5 million in North America.
Late summer slowdowns are nothing new at the box office. Typically, studios have fired their big guns by this time of year -- and have little choice but to fill out the pre-Labor Day release schedule with pictures that hold little promise of surviving the cutthroat competition that dominates the box office from mid-May to early August.
Studios routinely take this opportunity to flush out the pipeline, often releasing movies just to throw them against the wall and see if they stick.
The new Eddie Murphy comedy "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" seems to fall into that category.
It's being released Friday, almost two years after it wrapped filming and 14 months after its original release date -- never a sign that a studio has supreme confidence in a picture.
Murphy plays a lunar nightclub owner in 2087, who inadvertently gets roped into a rebellion against an evil corporation and winds up leading the revolt. Co-stars include Rosario Dawson ("Men in Black II") and Peter Boyle ("Everybody Loves Raymond").
Studios have also learned that late August can be a good time to release movies that seem to have merit but might not have what it takes to break through earlier in the summer.
That's the tag being put on "Blue Crush," the story of young women who challenge the traditional male dominance at a surfing competition in Hawaii. It stars Kate Bosworth ("Remember the Titans"), Michelle Rodriguez ("The Fast and the Furious," "Girlfight") and newcomer Sanoe Lake.
Robin Williams arrives on Aug. 21 in "One Hour Photo," as a photo processing company worker who obsesses over a family and turns their life into a nightmare.
Al Pacino opens on Aug. 23 in "S1mone" as a producer who replaces a temperamental star with a digital creation that actually fools the moviegoing public. It's written and directed by Andrew Niccol ("The Truman Show").
Also on Aug. 23, Elizabeth Hurley and Matthew Perry arrive in theaters in the romantic comedy "Serving Sara," and Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames open in "Undisputed," a prison drama pitting a top-ranked heavyweight boxer against a 10-time prison boxing champ.
Nothing on the release schedule for the remainder of the summer indicates that the stage is set for Hollywood to put on a rally in the closing days of the summer movie season -- and recent hits such as "Signs," "Austin Powers in Goldmember" and "Men in Black II" do not appear to have much box-office stamina.
Any of the upcoming titles could surprise the professionals and turn into hits. But the way it looks now, no help is on the way and the movie business could be in for something of a hard landing heading into the fall.