August 28, 1998

Movie Winners and Losers From the Fat Summer of `98

By Michael Fleeman

LOS ANGELES (AP) — This summer's movies weren't for the faint-hearted, what with all the flying meteors, whizzing German bullets, slashing swords, lethal black goo and that rampaging lizard.

And yet people went to see them, and in droves. There was something for every taste, no matter how bad, and at least two serious Oscar contenders emerged, unusual for the popcorn season.

With so much on the menu, however, there was the constant challenge to stand out, and more than a few films got buried, leaving the summer with many winners and losers. Among them:

WINNER: The audience. The summer season is usually noted for its sequels and mindless action movies — not to mention mindless action sequels — and certainly the summer of 1998 had its share, from "Lethal Weapon 4" to "Godzilla." But quality also could be found in such Oscar-worthy fare as "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Truman Show," raising the bar for the fall "quality" season.

The summer also offered one of the funniest comedies in some time, "There's Something About Mary," as well as one of the better Disney animated features, "Mulan," and not one but two movies about menacing space debris in "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact."

Movie-goers responded to the selection kindly. The summer is the biggest on record in box office dollars, unadjusted for inflation, at $2.16 billion from Memorial Day weekend through last weekend, 10 percent ahead of last summer's $1.96 billion, the previous record summer. And this year's figure doesn't include a good chunk of the $139.6 million gross for "Deep Impact," because the film opened two weeks before Memorial Day weekend.

LOSER: The blockbuster. Goodbye "Men in Black," goodbye "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," goodbye "Independence Day." The era of the $200 million-plus super-hit died in the icy waters that claimed "Titanic" — at least for now.

The summer was marked by a series of triples, but no home runs, with high production and marketing costs and profit-sharing deals in which stars cut into profits even for the biggest films. The good, but not stellar, performances of "Godzilla" and "The X-Files" may also have snuffed out any potential sequels.

WINNER: Steven Spielberg. The most successful director in Hollywood history reached an even higher level with "Saving Private Ryan," the epic that reinvented the war movie. Brutally realistic, stunningly photographed and brilliantly acted, "Ryan" is marred only by a sappy plot device and some story lapses in the middle, but otherwise stands out as one of the greatest combat movies ever made. And it's raking in the money: $126 million and growing. The only thing between Spielberg and another armload of Oscars is the armload of Oscars he already won with "Schindler's List."

LOSER: George Clooney, who just can't seem to get his movie career out of the ER, even when he's in a quality film. Clooney shined in "Out of Sight," a nifty Elmore Leonard adaptation, but the movie fizzled at the box office and became another pit-stop in Clooney's trail of tears: "From Dusk Till Dawn," "The Peacemaker," "Batman Robin" and "One Fine Day."

WINNER: Jerry Bruckheimer. All right, "Armageddon" may have been a noisy, nonsensical testosterone case that made "Deep Impact" look like "Citizen Kane." But let's face it: The second of the Earth-in-peril films was the top grossing movie of the summer and the biggest in Disney's somewhat checkered live-action history. It even topped "Pretty Woman," and that has to count for something.

Now settled in to working without Don Simpson, producer Bruckheimer has proven that, like his late partner, he knows his audiences, particularly those that are young and male.

LOSERS: MGM/UA and Universal Studios. The once-proud MGM, which produced "The Wizard of Oz" and released "Gone With the Wind," had a disappointment, "Disturbing Behavior," and a turkey, "Dirty Work," as its summer offerings. And while Universal's parent company, Seagram, was off shopping for record labels in Europe, the studio back home released the box office duds "BASEketball" and "Out of Sight."

WINNERS: Paramount and 20th Century Fox. As if these studios didn't make enough from the joint production of "Titanic," whose revenues sloshed into the summer season, they had the best-performing lineup of summer movies, with Paramount's "Deep Impact" and "The Truman Show" and Fox's "Dr. Dolittle," "The X-Files" and "There's Something About Mary."

WINNER: The Farrelly Brothers, whose "There's Something About Mary" proved that there's something about gross-out humor — as long as it's funny. The low-budget comedy from the makers of "Kingpin" and "Dumb and Dumber" had movie-goers howling in spite of themselves. The sleeper hit of the summer found laughs in all the wrong places, from gay sex to a very creative kind of hair gel. Box office: nearly $100 million and holding strong.

LOSER: The other comedies. Even the creative forces behind "Airplane!" couldn't squeeze chuckles out of sports and organized crime. "BASEketball" and "Mafia" fell far short of the gut-splitting humor of "Mary," which was released around the same time. Box office: $6.7 million for "BASEketball," $18.5 million for "Mafia."

WINNERS: Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy. Carrey's restrained performance (for him, anyway) as the unwitting star of his own 24-hour-TV program in "The Truman Show" generated the first Oscar buzz of the year. It also propelled Carrey into the comedic acting league of Robin Williams and Steve Martin. Murphy proved with "Dr. Dolittle" that last year's transvestite incident didn't ruin his box office appeal.

LOSERS: Art house films. Some of the best movies of the summer played in the art houses, including "The Opposite of Sex," "Smoke Signals," "High Art" and "The Last Days of Disco," and that was the problem: too much quality product. Still, look for Oscar nominations from the actress ranks, particularly Ally Sheedy in "High Art" and possibly Christina Ricci from "The Opposite of Sex."

WINNER: Laurie Strode. Poor girl, it took 20 years to get homicidal psychopath Michael Myers of the original "Halloween" off her back. But in "Halloween: H20," Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, finally did just that, and made a bundle of dough along the way. The modestly budgeted slasher film scored over $40 million at the box office, proving there's still money in blood.

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