The biggest menace to Hollywood this summer may be a phantom after all.
In the weeks leading up to last Wednesday's opening of
The Phantom Menace
, the big six studios hastily rearranged their schedules so that George Lucas' hotly awaited act of self-love wouldn't overwhelm their own summer releases. Aside from
, only one big-budget movie,
, has been released this month, and only a couple more are coming before the end of June.
Even so, with
booked into eight- and 12-week runs in many big theaters, studios worried before it opened that it might dominate even into July, draining attention and ticket sales for most of the summer, Hollywood's biggest season. Hyped everywhere from
looked ready to challenge
for the all-time U.S. box office record of $600 million.
Considering that the U.S. box office is only $7 billion annually, that potential made
a significant threat to the studios, especially with two more
prequels coming in the next four years. With the box office already down slightly this year, studio profits slipping and spending on film development down sharply at industry leader
, the studios hardly needed to lose the summer to
is out -- and it looks like Hollywood can relax a bit.
director James Cameron will be king of the world at least a little bit longer. After setting the all-time record for a single day's box office gross with a $28 million opening on Wednesday,
failed to take the top all-time spot for an opening weekend. The movie so far has grossed just over $105 million, but that's well short of expectations, which ranged from $120 million to $140 million. In addition, reviewers have hacked
, and the film didn't build strongly over the weekend, indicating weak word of mouth.
Paul Dergarabedian, president of
, a Los Angeles company that monitors box office grosses, says the expectations for
were almost impossible to meet. "People were anticipating the box office returns almost as much as they were anticipating the movie itself," he says. But he cautions against labeling the movie a disappointment, noting that it has already turned in three of the eight biggest box office days of all time.
, which is distributing
for Lucas in return for a small fee, says it's "extremely pleased" with the movie's performance.
The question is not whether
will be profitable. The movie more than recovered its $115 million budget before it opened, thanks to the huge licensing deals Lucas cut with
and other companies that specialize in consumer goods of dubious necessity. The
Los Angeles Times
estimated last week that after home video sales and licensing royalties, Lucas could
more than $2 billion in profit from the film. Even if the film is a total disaster at the box office, that figure is practically guaranteed to be more than $1 billion, thanks to royalties.
In fact, Lucas' profits from this film will probably exceed those produced by the 150-odd films that will be released in 1999 from the big six studios, owned by Disney,
and Fox. (According to estimates from
analyst David Londoner, the majors will turn in less than $2 billion in cash flow this year on revenue of about $20 billion. And that doesn't include the studios' financing and depreciation costs, which are substantial.)
But Hollywood's fear that
will worsen the recession the studios have quietly entered appears to be waning. "Does this make it a little easier? Sure," one studio exec says. "If nothing else,
won't be competing for marketing time" in July, when the floodgates open. This person figures that Disney has the most to gain if
weakens early. Its summer animated feature,
, which opens June 18, is pitched at the same young audience Lucas is targeting. Time Warner, whose
subsidiary will release its highly anticipated sequel to
on June 11, could also benefit.
analyst Jessica Reif warns against reading too much into
first five days. Without another weekend, "It's hard to know exactly what the impact is going to be," Reif says. She is especially cross with Fox shareholders, who bid down shares in Rupert Murdoch's studio/television network by as much 8% Monday. While the stock eventually recovered and closed even on the day, it's down 10% from its recent high of 29 1/2, set May 13, as
hype peaked. Tuesday the stock slipped 1 1/16, or 4%, to 25 13/16. (Merrill has performed underwriting for Fox.)
What investors don't understand is that
represents a very small part of Fox's revenue, Reif says. The company will get somewhere between 5% and 10% of the movie's box office revenue as a fee for distributing the movie, compared with the $8 billion in revenue the company expects this year.
At the same time, Reif notes, the most recent television pilot season has cemented Fox's place as the leading supplier of television shows. The company has placed almost 30 new and returning shows on the six networks, almost guaranteeing that it will reap syndication revenues in coming years. It's "a guaranteed profit stream ... they've got great time periods, and they do have shows that are working," Reif sighs. But "everyone's so focused on