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Winds of change or a short gust?

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
Published July 15, 2005

If you felt a westerly breeze Monday, it wasn't a remnant of Hurricane Dennis. That was a collective sigh of relief blowing all the way from Hollywood when last weekend's box office results were finalized.

All bad things must come to an end, even the longest stretch of declining ticket revenues ever, or at least the past 23 years since such data have been scrutinized. For 19 consecutive weeks, fewer dollars were collected than on the corresponding weekend in 2004. The streak ended when Fantastic Four opened stronger than even Twentieth Century Fox's marketers expected, and they're paid to make everything seem rosier than reality.

Hollywood still isn't out of the woods. But at least for one weekend, the movie industry didn't smash head-on into a tree.

Fantastic Four earned $56-million at box offices, at least $15-million more than forecasted by analysts who were probably feeling a bit pessimistic. Who could blame them, after such a slump? Their orange juice glasses must have looked half full Monday morning.

A closer look at the numbers suggests nobody should rest easy yet.

Upon further review, the increase in ticket sales over the second weekend in July 2004 wasn't anything to brag about.

Last weekend, $148.8-million worth of tickets were sold on the first weekend after the Fourth of July, only a half-million bucks ahead of 2004's numbers. That's small change in a business that earned $9.54-billion last year. The reversal of fortune was also decidedly top-heavy; Fantastic Four accounted for more than one-third of last weekend's sales. Business for every other film in the top 10 declined except the horror flick Dark Water, which had a disappointing fourth place debut with $10-million.

Does anyone in Hollywood honestly feel like hoisting a "Mission Accomplished" banner?

Hard to do when your winning streak is one. Making it two weekends of gains in a row will be tough. If you're keeping score at home, the top four grossers on this weekend in 2004 were I, Robot ($52.1-million), Spider-Man 2 ($24.7-million in its third week) and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy ($13.8-million in its second) and the debut of A Cinderella Story ($13.6-million). The drop from there was steep.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will hold up its part of the deal and Wedding Crashers, despite its R rating from the MPAA, should do well. But last weekend's 52 percent drop in ticket sales for War of the Worlds means the end is near, and Batman Begins barely edged Dark Water's debut. That easterly breeze Friday will be Hollywood sucking in and holding its collective breath.

If anything, last weekend's slight box office upturn is comparable to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who also snapped a long losing streak last weekend. That made fans feel better temporarily, but it's still a lousy season. There's no way that Hollywood will salvage a winning record this year; the hole's dug too deep. Ticket sales are down an estimated 10 percent in 2005, as consumer surveys note dissatisfaction with ticket prices and movie quality, plus a growing preference for watching movies at home on DVD and pay-per-view.

What's interesting is watching the movie industry's trials and errors in adapting to this new world of entertainment. Theater owners boast about surviving the advent of television a half-century ago, but technology has fractured the distractions from theaters into video games, cable television, music downloads, concert events and all kinds of outdoor activities. DVDs are the most direct competition, though, so that's where Hollywood focuses its attention.

DreamWorks and Pixar Animation Studios thought they had the game figured out. They invested fortunes in producing and marketing DVDs of animated theatrical hits - Shrek 2 and The Incredibles, respectively - for summertime sales. Both DVDs sold well, but they also discovered a saturation point, leading both studios to overestimate the market. DreamWorks reportedly sold 10-million fewer copies of Shrek 2 than anticipated. Pixar shipped 1-million more DVDs of The Incredibles than consumers wanted.

Both mistakes resulted in decreasing stock values, and some business analysts suggest that's a sign of the DVD industry entering its own slumping period, which movie producers and theater owners would love to see. Any forecast in that direction is propaganda for studios and exhibitors to keep the troops encouraged.

America: what a wonderful economy. Where else can two major corporations each mess up one of their most profitable investments and wind up helping another moneymaker on the skids? Pixar and DreamWorks' DVD problems, coupled with the end of the box office slump, finally gave producers and theater owners something to smile about this week. And breathe a little easier.

- Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or 727 893-8365.

[Last modified July 14, 2005, 09:44:02]


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