The Dog Days

July 12, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

The Dog Days have begun. They are so-named for that time of the year when Sirius (the "Dog Star") rises around the same time as the sun. That equates on the calendar to the period beginning in mid-July and ending in late August. Movie-lovers looking at their schedule of upcoming releases don't need an astronomical definition to recognize that the Dog Days are here.

What were the most anticipated movies of the summer of 2006? Mission: Impossible 3, The Da Vinci Code, Cars, Superman Returns, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. By July 12, all of those have been released. What's left? You, Me and Dupree; My Superhero Ex-Girlfriend; Miami Vice; The Lady in the Lake; World Trade Center; Snakes on a Plane. Impressed? Think Pirates 2 will enjoy a looooong run at the top of the revenue pile?

It's not that all the upcoming movies are bad. I haven't seen many of them, so I don't know. In fact, one of the summer's most enjoyable low-key movies, Little Miss Sunshine, is arriving in August. But when it comes to spectacle and high expectations, summer has shot its load. There's nothing left now except the long road to the Awards season. That's the problem with frontloading everything.

Hollywood keeps boasting how profits are up this year, but I wonder how much of that is smoke and mirrors. According to the raw numbers, gross box office receipts are up 10% over last year (that includes the Pirates 2 bump), but still down from the year before. However, 2006 has seen a 6% ticket price increase over 2005, so indications are that, despite the "increase," tickets sold are either flat or slightly up from last year.

Viewers are drawn to movie theaters if they're excited about a title. If it's just something that gets good reviews, or that they might want to see, they'll wait for the DVD. How many of this summer's remaining movies are generating the "I have to see it" buzz? Not many. You, Me and Dupree might pull in some of the Wedding Crashers crowd. Movie-goers are probably too superheroed-out for My Superhero Ex-Girlfriend to make much of an impact. There's no apparent interest in ANOTHER TV show making it to the big screen. Shymalan has lost whatever fan base he once had. World Trade Center faces the same problems as United 93. Regardless of how well-made it may be, many people aren't ready. As for Snakes on a Plane, no matter what you may have heard, it's more cult than mainstream. Don't expect it to challenge the big guns at the top of the 2006 summer box office chart.

The reality, however, is that many of the cheaper July/August movies aren't being released with the expectation that they'll set the world on fire. These are films made with the DVD market in mind; a theatrical release is a necessary precursor for two reasons: (1) generating awareness through commercials and word-of-mouth, and (2) avoiding the direct-to-video label. For these movies, any money that comes in during a theatrical run is a bonus. Blockbusters can's surivive on video alone. They cost too much, and need a big opening weekend to help defray costs.

The problem with many of the summer's remaining movies is that they likely represent studio miscalculations. They're big pricetag features with video appeal. Miami Vice is a great example. The budget is an estimated $125M, yet there's no buzz. The level of interest is low. Kids can't officially see it (it's rated R) and older viewers have about as much interest in a revival of this TV program as in The Dukes of Hazzard. The movie will do well on video. Had it cost $40M or $50M to make, that would have been fine. But the bloated budget has led to box office expectations that this film will not be able to meet.

If you don't like hearing doom-and-gloom predictions from Hollywood, now's a good time to tune out. Once Pirates has made its heist, the profitability of this summer's crop of movies is about to become a mirage.