Studio Heads Are Ignoring Legends Of The Fall
By Michael Cieply

(FORTUNE Magazine) – With the violence-panicked movie studios scrambling to fend off Republican enemies and repurchase Democratic friends, they seem to be ignoring a really big problem: Everybody has suddenly stopped going to the movies. September has always been an iffy month for Hollywood. Kids are back in school, football sucks up the audience, and the Oscar films haven't really come into focus. But this September has been so bad, you have to wonder if something more ominous is going on.

The September box office total for the first three weeks of the month was $330.4 million, down 22% from a year earlier, according to Exhibitor Relations. This is pointing toward one of the weakest autumns in the past decade. The biggest film this September has been The Watcher--an awful serial-killer story that has taken in just $22.7 million in its first three weeks, according to Exhibitor Relations. What little strength the month has shown has come from August holdovers Bring It On, Space Cowboys, What Lies Beneath, and The Cell.

This most disturbing trend lies in the year-over-year box office numbers, which have sunk for nine weeks in a row. This is beginning to create vicious negative momentum that promises even more trouble next quarter. "Last year, everyone was talking about movies," says Exhibitor Relations President Paul Dergarabedian. "They were talking about American Beauty and American Pie and Blair Witch. This year they're talking about Survivor. There's been a series of bankruptcies of exhibitors [like Carmike Cinemas and United Artists Theatres]. That's what they're talking about."

The prevailing theory in film is pretty simple: People go to the movies when they're excited about them. Joe Roth, the ex-chief of Disney Studios, used to talk about a "wheel of movies" as audiences "roll" through films they've seen on trailers attached to big movies. When the momentum slows, it takes a huge event--The Matrix or Titanic--to reenergize the market.

This month is missing the usual sleeper that propels the industry through the fall. In four of the past five years, Hollywood has used September to launch at least one slightly off-center bet. Last year Double Jeopardy, a revenge story starring Ashley Judd, cleared $98 million. In 1998 the chop-and-chuckle Rush Hour made $141 million with the oddball pairing of Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. The gay-themed In & Out, starring Kevin Kline, took in $64 million in 1997. A year earlier, an aging female ensemble cast made $105 million with First Wives Club, while Seven upended movie logic by grossing $100 million with a kind of ugly bleakness usually reserved for art films.

These seemingly disparate films had one thing in common: a risky defiance of formula. They captured popular imagination by drawing from different demographic groups, as Rush Hour did, or aiming for an underserved group, as First Wives did.

Unless DreamWorks' Almost Famous suddenly turns into American Beauty, the decades-old Exorcist defies gravity, or Disney can break the spell with Denzel Washington's Remember the Titans, this will be a frosty autumn in Hollywood, which could make for a long, cold winter.

MICHAEL CIEPLY is the West Coast editorial director for