One Scary Summer
OK, so how many different records were broken at the summer box office of 1999?
It is a difficult question considering every film pretty much broke a record of its own. “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” has the largest opening day box office gross. “Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me” has the largest weekend opening of a comedy. “Notting Hill” had broken the biggest Julia Roberts opening until “Runaway Bride” opened two months later.
“Big Daddy” was the biggest opening non-sequal comedy, and “The Sixth Sense” was the largest August opening in movie history. Finally, “The Blair Witch Project” is believed to be the most profitable film in history, as its initial $35,000 cost was heavily overcome by its $120-million-and-counting box office gross.
Even the box office in general broke a record with nine different No. 1 films in as many weeks, that streak ending with this week’s top film, “The Sixth Sense,” which is in its third week as the No. 1 film in America.
A monster beginning
This increase in box office activity shows that Americans have an insatiable hunger for movies, or at least for movie popcorn and soda. Following a trend that has lasted throughout the ’90s, the summer movie season began a week early this year, when “The Mummy” had an enormous opening weekend with more than $40 million.
Coming in the footsteps of “Twister” and “Deep Impact,” the success of “The Mummy” was especially more impactful considering that a certain first episode of a certain space saga was opening shortly after it. But America was ready, and it coughed up the dollars to make “The Mummy” 1999’s first summer blockbuster.
Then there was a little movie called “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” Hopelessly hyped as the film with the biggest potential in history, “Episode I” came upon its May 19 opening with so many expectations that pretty much any outcome would be disappointing.
This is why, even though the film had a record-breaking opening day, critics still lambasted it for not making twice as much. This is why the media treated its opening weekend a failure, even though it raked in more than $70 million. And simply for not kicking “Titanic”’s sunken ship out of the top box office spot, “Episode I” will most likely be considered a failure in the wake of its hype.
But the summer that was supposed to be all about Anakin Skywalker and Darth Maul soon became the summer of a second helping of danger ... that is, Austin Powers. Yes, the world continued to turn with 12-year old boys screaming “Yeah, baby, yeah!” around the playground, and eaters everywhere yelling to their food, “Get in my belly!” in their best Scottish accent.
Most importantly, though, was that “Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me” took most of the box office attention away from “Star Wars” and refocused the summer on gross-out humor and laughs, just where “There’s Something About Mary” ended the previous summer. And still, there has been no Austing Powers backlash, which means the third installment of “Austin Powers” will be just as big a blockbuster as its predecessors.
Julia, Episode I
To quell some of the disgust that “Austin Powers” brought to audiences, particularly in the form of Fat Bastard, fortunately there was a gal named Julia to save the day. In “Notting Hill,” Julia Roberts teamed with Hugh Grant in yet another romantic comedy for the date crowd. Roberts played a movie star to Grant’s simple bookstore owner. Though Roberts’ role will never be considered her furthest stretch, one must remember audiences didn’t exactly embrace her “Mary Reilly” or “Michael Collins” roles.
What made “Notting Hill” more than just another romantic comedy was its supporting cast of veteran British comic actors. More than anything it was their banter and comic interplay that resuscitated the film from suffering a romantic heart attack.
At least it was saved until Roberts dealt the following words to her on-screen beau: “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love me.” This line steered the film into a realm of corniness and unbelievability that was only exclamated by an all too happy ending showing Roberts and Grant with child, in the garden where they first fell in love. But that’s why people go to the movies, for unbelievability.
Which is exactly the scenario created when Adam Sandler jumped back onto the screen in “Big Daddy.” Playing a fellow who adopts a little boy to get a girl, Sandler continued his box office prowess with the midsummer comedy. Showing more heart than in his last blockbuster, “The Waterboy,” “Big Daddy” strengthened Sandler’s position in the stratosphere of Hollywood’s most bankable actors, even though most critics would agree that Sandler can’t act worth the elastic in his oldest pair of underwear.
And underwear is exactly the uniform of 1999’s installment of the Disney animated classic, “Tarzan.” The biggest animated feature since “The Lion King,” excluding “A Bug’s Life” which was more of a computer-generated feature. “Tarzan” proved that the old Disney formula could be altered for the sake of filmmaking.
Using less of the typical Broadway showtune style, “Tarzan” showcased Phil Collins as its main source of music, and transformed the man of the jungle into a surfer/skater in a loin cloth. With these minor adjustments, “Tarzan” quietly rose to the top of 1999’s summer class.
At the bottom of the list, surprisingly, was Will Smith and his third Fourth of July flick, “Wild Wild West.” Though hyped heavily via Smith’s blockbuster music video and costarring the luscious Salma Hayek, “Wild Wild West” failed to generate the huge box office dollars his other two holiday films generated (“Independence Day” and “Men in Black”). Still, the movie made $111 million at the box office, continuing Smith’s reign as a $100 million dollar man.
Still hoping for that $100 million payoff is “American Pie,” the gross-out comedy whose name evolves not from the classic song but from an entertaining, pastry-loving scene involving the sensual warmth of fresh-baked apple pie.
Employing a virtual no-name cast of teens, “American Pie” strives to create the good ol’ days of premillenial, sexaholic teenagehood, making a classic teen movie at a time when too many unnecessary teen movies make their way into theaters.
Mommy, that’s scary
Also becoming an instant classic, at least in terms of movie marketing, was “The Blair Witch Project,” which broke down all boundaries of how to make a film, and inspired curiosity in audiences throughout the nation. Initially opening in 27 theaters in 24 markets, “The Blair Witch Project” scared up per-screen averages of about $60,000 in its first two weeks.
But the dollars are not the only amazing piece of evidence concerning the success of “The Blair Witch Project.” Coming from almost nowhere, the clever Internet ad campaign, which created a world in which the “The Blair Witch Project” was truth, allowed for curious net-surfers to spread the word about the mysterious and confusing film.
Things turned immediately to the familiar when Julia came back into the lives of Americans with another — surprise — romantic comedy, “Runaway Bride.” This time around, Roberts scores with Richard Gere, in a recoupling of the duo who made “Pretty Woman” an early ’90s hit. Though a bit kookier than Roberts’ “Notting Hill,” “Runaway Bride” fell into a state of corniness more severe than that of the first film.
The final hit of the summer came as a surprise to many, as it starred perennial steroid-case Bruce Willis, a child star and the label “psychological thriller.” Once released, though, the film immediately became the must-see of August, and is currently kicking butt at the box office, making about $70 million in its first 10 days of release, and more than $105 million in three weeks.
This brings the box office to the present, where the new fall season is about to get underway, and audiences will make records of a whole new crop of films. Until then, the summer box office is open for business.
All Scene Stories for Thursday, August 4, 1999