An improved business climate can't come soon enough for America's theater owners.
The No. 1 movie last week, "Phone Booth," collected just $15 million. The No. 2 box-office attraction, "What a Girl Wants," managed just $12.1 million. And Vin Diesel -- anointed Hollywood's newest action star after the success of "The Fast and the Furious" -- brought in just $11.2 million worth of business for his newest picture, "A Man Apart."
Such relatively anemic numbers are the rule, rather than the exception, at the U.S. box office so far this year. Analysts have noted that ticket sales have been particularly weak since the U.S.-led war began in Iraq, but some have also pointed out that the movies Hollywood has sent to market are a long way from making any critic's Top 10 list.
There have been just a handful of commercial hits so far.
The Kate Hudson-Matthew McConaughey romantic comedy "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" and Ben Affleck's take on comic book hero "Daredevil" both went over $100 million. The Luke Wilson-Will Ferrell-Vince Vaughan gross-out comedy "Old School" reached for $75 million.
After that, the numbers get a bit more modest.
"Agent Cody Banks," "The Hunted" and "Tears of the Sun" did decent business. But "Boat Trip," "Dreamcatcher," "Willard," "The Life of David Gale" and "View From the Top" never got any traction at all. "Gods and Generals," a prestige project that never lit a fire under audiences, struggled to reach $15 million overall.
Of course, this year's movies had a hard act to follow. The most recent crop of Oscar hopefuls was, in the estimation of many in Hollywood, aesthetically superior to the pictures submitted for consideration in recent years.
Ismail Merchant -- the producer of such Oscar-winning pictures as "The Remains of the Day" (1993), "Howards End" (1992) and "A Room with a View" (1986) -- told United Press International 2002 was a very good year for high-quality movies.
"There are quite sensible films there," he said. "'About Schmidt'; 'The Hours;' 'Far from Heaven;' 'Chicago' -- I feel that this year's crop is very good. I liked 'Catch Me if You Can.'"
Merchant thinks that filmmakers just got tired of seeing so many bad movies show up.
"I would sort of say that more and more, there is such rubbish going on that people have become conscious of making better films," he said.
It baffles Merchant that so many mediocre movies can get made.
"Why people are so thickheaded in the top positions that they can't see what is really good in a script and what is bad, and they would just take the bad and do the bad ones," he wondered.
Merchant's greatest success has come as a producer, but he has also directed a few projects along the way. In 1983, he directed the TV movie "The Courtesans of Bombay." Since 1993, he has directed a half dozen features -- including "The Mystic Masseur" in 2001, based on the novel of the same name by the Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul.
Set in 1950s Trinidad, it is the story of an aspiring writer makes ends meet as a masseur and soon becomes a revered mystic and influential politician. Just released on home video, "The Mystic Masseur" opens a window on the rarely seen Indian subculture that thrived in Trinidad ever since Indians were brought there 175 years ago to work as laborers.
Merchant, a native of Bombay, said he knew little of the culture until he read Naipaul's book.
"They have assimilated the local culture and brought something of their own," he said. "Indians speak like any Trinidadian would."
Merchant said he is working on a comedy about a rich young Indian couple that buys the most beautiful house in England, and employs a house staff made up entirely of English servants.
"It's the reverse idea of how we were ruled by the English," he said. "Today, England is being run by people who came from the outside. The shops, the restaurants -- are all being run by Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis and Africans. The English have even taken to the Indian cuisine."