LOS ANGELES, Aug. 28 (UPI) -- A summer movie season obsessed with opening huge closes small this Labor Day weekend with Paramount Pictures sending one of the year's only films with any legs, the caper flick "The Italian Job," back into 1,700 theatres so it can reach the $100 million box office plateau.
If it does, "The Italian Job," which opened with a modest $19.5 million back in May, will join "The Pirates of the Caribbean" as one of only two movies to have made five times as much in its total run as in its first weekend. ("Finding Nemo" currently has a "legs ratio" of 4.7 and "Seabiscuit" is at 4.5 and still cantering.)
What's remarkable about "The Italian Job" is how unremarkable it ought to be. It's a remake of a 1969 English film that nobody in America remembers, starring a journeyman cast (Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, and Edward Norton phoning in a performance under contractual obligation), and directed by the unheralded F. Gary Gray. It simply delivers a fun evening out at the movies that inspired good word-of-mouth.
And that's something that's been in short supply this year.
During the past few years, an increasing amount of the talent and energy in Hollywood has gone into marketing films rather than making them.
Economically, this has been a hugely successful stratagem. But this year, it seems to have finally hit diminishing returns as the public has shown that -- while it can still be whipped into an opening weekend frenzy -- it can no longer be cajoled into staying interested in blockbuster duds.
During the bubble economy of the 1990s, the movie studios were the lucky bystanders to an irrational expansion war in which many movie theater chains built enormous megaplexes as fast as they could until they went bankrupt. Ironically, this eliminated the traditional bottleneck -- not enough opening weekend seats -- that kept the studios from fully exploiting the clause in their contract with the theatres that gave the studio 50 percent more of the gross during a film's first week than its fourth.
So, Hollywood put enormous ingenuity into getting America to show up during that highly profitable first weekend.
Back in 1994, the legs ratio of the year's top 50 films was 6.4. Last year it was down to 3.9. The era when a summer sleeper release can achieve a double digit legs ratio like 1998's "Something About Mary" (12.4) and 1999's "The Sixth Sense" (11.0) seems long gone. The best that a widely released summer movie has done in this century was 2001's grown-up ghost story "The Others" (6.9).
Yet, because the average top 50 film's first weekend grew from $11 million in 1994 to $31 million in 2002, overall domestic box office roared upward from $5.4 billion to $9.1 billion. That's impressive growth for a century-old medium in an era with so many new electronic entertainment alternatives.
The culmination of this first-weekend trend was this summer's surfeit of listless sequels and remakes. Canadian writer Colby Cosh, a devoted player of the online box office forecasting game Hollywood Stock Exchange, explained the business logic to me: "Sequels and remakes of old TV shows and movies never, ever fail. In the latter case, it doesn't seem to matter, really, if people have actually seen the source material, nor whether a big star is on hand. They adore the familiar, even if all they know is that it should be familiar."
Lately, the movie industry's guilty conscience has become worried that text messaging on cellular phones will hypercharge word of mouth, allowing disgruntled moviegoers at the very first showing to alert their friends to stay away. That may happen some day, but so far, the first weekend of teenage boy movies seem practically invulnerable to bad word of mouth.
For example, many thousands of people saw industry screenings of "The Matrix Reloaded" long before its mid-May debut. I attended two previews, and seldom have I seen a greater contrast in demeanor between the excited crowds that thronged into the palatial theater on the Warner lot and the muttering, shell-shocked survivors who staggered out three hours later.
I tried to warn you all about "Reloaded," but you wouldn't listen!
Moreover, hundreds of thousands paid to see "Reloaded" during showings late on the Wednesday night of its opening weekend, yet they couldn't get the word out either. It still sucked in a supercolossal $134 million during that long first weekend. After that, though, it took in just $145 million.
"X-2" started the summer season with a bang, $86 million, but ended its run with a whimper, attaining a legs ratio of just 2.5. Ang Lee's "The Hulk" did worse, with a final ratio of 2.1.
(Yes, as I'm sure you guessed, the all-time record low legs ratio of 1.6 was set by "Gigli," which was even worse than "Battlefield Earth's" 1.9. And its opening weekend was awful, too.)
The seemingly surefire comic book, sci-fi and cop films aimed at young males fizzled quickly this summer. Still, they made so much out of the box that none were financial disasters. The summer was saved for Hollywood by the staying power of kids' movies like "Nemo," "Pirates," "Bruce Almighty," "Daddy Day Care" and "Freaky Friday."
There's an inchoate sense in Hollywood today that they've pressed their luck with this business model as far as it can go, that they actually deserve to make a movie with $175 million dollars worth of explosions and have nobody show up the first weekend. Yet, until the male audience collectively decides to punish a bang-bang-boom-boom blockbuster the way female audiences have punished recent films by divas Jennifer Lopez, Madonna and Mariah Carey, it will keep getting more of what it deserves.