Here’s what we know, so far: the season began long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…and ended with a Philly kid who sees dead people. In between, while the box office got hotter than the center of a Pop Tart (up 17.7 percent over last season), Latin music salsa’d its way up the charts. Even our silent TV sets were turned on to witness the U.S. women’s soccer team victory and the vigil for JFK Jr. (not to mention reruns of The Sopranos). And just when summer felt as old as Yoda, along came Regis screeching ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
From the failure of hype to the success of scary, it’s been, as Cartman might say, a summer to warp our fragile little minds. For those feeling as lost as the Blair Witch-ers, EW presents its picks for the most memorable wonders and blunders of the season, along with six lessons learned. Discuss ’em with friends as you scrape the last bit of marshmallow goo off the grill. After all, haven’t we all had just about enough ghost stories?
1. THE REAL ‘PHANTOM MENACE’ FALLOUT
You can still pick fights by saying Jar Jar wasn’t so bad, but you can’t argue with Phantom Menace‘s record-shattering success: At $417.8 million (and counting), it’s the third-highest-grossing domestic film of all time. Still, Lucasfilm had to fight a perception that the movie had not performed up to expectations.
Rumors that Star Wars tie-ins were selling slowly were so pervasive that Hasbro, the biggest maker of Star Wars toys, saw its stock dip 30 percent since May. Along with Pepsi, which marketed Queen Amidala and Obi-Wan soda cans, Hasbro reports that business has been out of this world. Yet the Force wasn’t with everyone. Tricon Global Restaurants, the conglomerate behind KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, blamed a slowdown in U.S. sales on ”the fact that our promotional tie-in with Star Wars was surprisingly ineffective.” Howard Roffman, Lucasfilm’s licensing VP, prefers to look at the bottom line: ”There have been over 85 million admissions to Phantom Menace, and we’ll sell over a billion dollars retail this year.”
The notion of a failed blockbuster didn’t dog just Star Wars. Along with the usual contingent of Big Events that disappointed, from Geri Halliwell’s Schizophonic to Will Smith’s Wild Wild West, the stumbling-giant syndrome was a recurring theme. We witnessed galactic gaps between grosses, critical acclaim, and fan satisfaction. In bookstores, Thomas Harris’ Hannibal was a best-seller, but its 1,500 Amazon.com reader reviews were divided between those who loved it and those who found it extremely unappetizing. Even Stanley Kubrick’s sexual thriller Eyes Wide Shut left unfulfilled desires. Though it opened at No. 1, Eyes got a CinemaScore of D-, one of the summer’s lowest. Given that reaction, its $54.1 million gross (to date) is respectable for what is essentially an art film.
In the end, summer proved to be a Yoda-worthy paradox: Early blockbusters were contested, late bloomers were embraced. It’s a scenario many say can be blamed on — you guessed it — The Phantom Menace. ”The entire pattern of the summer started with Fox taking the [May 19] date for Star Wars,” says Universal marketing president Marc Shmuger. ”All the other companies backed up competing product to the later months.”
2. THE INDIES’ REVENGE
With franchises, explosions, and superstars failing to perform up to usual standards, moviegoers turned to flame-haired German heroines, Rupert Everett, and handheld cameras for screen satisfaction. After a lackluster spring that saw no small movies become big hits, Sony Pictures Classics’ Run Lola Run ($4.6 million) and Miramax’s An Ideal Husband ($17.2 million) energized the indie scene. Of course, summer also gave us the biggest indie of all time: Artisan Films’ Blair Witch Project, which is expected to gross $138 million. With overseas receipts, it could possibly become one of the most profitable films of all time (joining the likes of American Graffiti — you can’t hold all the records, George). Blair Witch‘s ability to go head-to-head with Hollywood — and win — may soon inspire studios to experiment with counterprogramming. ”You can turn March into a blockbuster month,” says Universal distribution chief Nikki Rocco. ”It’s about the product.” Maybe it’s also old-fashioned indie chutzpah: Says Blair Witch codirector Daniel Myrick, ”We heard rumors that The Haunting and Deep Blue Sea might take a chunk of our core market, but we didn’t really feel like we were going to be competing with anybody.”
3. A TOPIC: SKEEVY VS. SCARY. DISCUSS.
Wait, wasn’t gross-out humor last year’s story? As summer began, moviegoers experienced There’s Something About Mary deja view: Phantom Menace gave us a fart joke, American Pie and Big Daddy let the bodily fluids flow, and South Park‘s flaming turds ran afoul of the ratings board. But after we got gross out of our collective systems, Blair Witch and, more important, The Sixth Sense tapped into our need to be chilled to the bone. The fallout? Expect to see more savvy Internet marketing (it worked for Blair Witch). There might even be more whispering in trailers (the promotional secret to the Sixth Sense phenom). But will scary carry over into next summer? ”When we took Sixth Sense from fall and moved it up to summer, we didn’t know what Blair Witch was. It [just] happened,” says Disney movie exec Dick Cook. ”It wasn’t planned.”
4. IT’S NOT JUST RICKY LIVIN’ ‘LA VIDA LOCA’
There’s no question Ricky Martin busted open the door for Latin-flavored pop singers like actress-cum-singer Jennifer Lopez (On the 6) and Enrique Iglesias (the irresistible ”Bailamos”). Thus, Martin is crowned summer’s cultural ambassador. But Ricky only glamorized a movement already under way. According to Bruce Polin, owner of Descarga.com, the largest online retailer of tropical music, it’s the Buena Vista Social Club that is quietly driving CD sales (currently 437,000 units, according to SoundScan) and attracting customers named Smith. An Artisan documentary about the 1997 album, a Grammy-winning collaboration between the Cuban musicians and Ry Cooder, has grossed $3.8 million. ”People who’d never bought a Cuban title called to ask where they could find it,” says Polin.
But for every musical leap made by Ricky and Co., the TV and film industries lag far behind. How many Latinos have been on screen lately? When the Latino advocacy group National Council of La Raza held its annual ALMA Awards, it was forced to eliminate the best-film and best-actress-on-TV categories because there were no nominees. ”Our food has been embraced, our music just exploded, and corporate America is finally ahead of the curve,” says Lisa Navarrete, a La Raza spokeswoman. ”But we’ve got a long way to go.”
5. ROCK’S NEW ROAR
If you happened to be an angry young man with an electric guitar, this was also your summer — and not only at Woodstock. Just when rock & roll seemed officially afflicted with sunstroke, a new wave of fury-fueled rockers — driven by the spelling-challenged lads of Limp Bizkit — poured a little ugly back onto the charts (thanks to Significant Other) and wrestled for the top slots with the soft-core Backstreet Boys.
Is this a sign of things to come? Retailers report fierce interest in upcoming angry opuses by Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails. ”It’s the antithesis to all these teen bands out there,” says John Grandoni, VP of purchasing for Midwest retail outlet National Record Mart. ”It’s divided kids into two schools: Backstreet fans and p—ed-off, angst-ridden, and politically oriented.” Or as Korn lead shrieker Jonathan Davis says: ”When I listen to music, I don’t wanna hear about flowers. I like death and destruction.” A thought just scary enough for this summer, unless you’re talking about…
6. THE REEGE
Kathie Lee’s even-testier cohort has become the summer’s No. 1 guilty pleasure, the surest sign yet it’s time for summer to end.
— Reported by Andrew Essex, Dave Karger, and Dan Snierson
ADDITIONAL REPORTING: Jennifer Boeth, Clarissa Cruz, Jeff Jensen, Leslie Marable, Leonard McCants, Laura Morgan, Brian M. Raftery, Jessica Shaw, and Josh Wolk