Rob Brunner and Tricia Johnson
March 31, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Independence Day has been liberated. For most of the late ’90s, the insanely profitable July 4 weekend was ruled by the invincible Will Smith (Independence Day, Men in Black, and last year’s much-reviled Wild Wild West). But this millennium, the Fresh Prince has moved to August (he’ll star in the explosion-free golf drama The Legend of Bagger Vance). The upshot: Even though spring has only just sprung, Hollywood is already bracing for an epic summer battle of succession.

Who will be the new Fourth man? George Clooney in the disaster movie The Perfect Storm? Mel Gibson in the Revolutionary War drama The Patriot? Or even a goofy moose in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle? ”It’s crowded,” says box office analyst Rich Ingrassia of Paul Kagan Associates. ”They’re really bunching [Fourth of July movies] up this summer.” We’re talking fireworks: Though the season features a handful of tough weekends (Hollow Man and Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps both open July 28), Independence Day’s three big guns are primed for the fiercest battle.

In terms of sheer star power, Gibson has the most bang, making the $80 million Patriot the odds-on favorite. The star’s last five movies have averaged nearly $100 million each. ”The Patriot‘s pretty much got a lock on it,” says Ingrassia. ”Mel is about the last of the older A-list stars that are still packing them in at the box office. Clooney has done fairly well, but his films haven’t been those giant hits.” To be precise, Clooney’s well-reviewed Three Kings and Out of Sight nabbed $60 million and $37 million, respectively.

Still, The Perfect Storm — which the studio says cost ”significantly less” than its reported budget of $140 million — has the potential to rain on Gibson’s parade. Based on Sebastian Junger‘s nonfiction best-seller about fishermen caught in a 1991 tempest, Storm may not need huge stars — it’s got a really awesome wave, as seen at the end of its buzz-generating trailer. As with Twister and Deep Impact, says media analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations, ”the effects are sort of the star…. Perfect Storm could be one of the biggest films of the summer.”

Even Gibson admits there’s room for a surprise. ”It’s a crapshoot, and there are no guarantees,” says the actor, who earned a whopping $25 million for Patriot. ”On the Fourth of July, people want to have high ding dong. They don’t want to go and see an educational film. Not that [The Patriot] is educational, but they will learn something.”

If it’s ding dong value you’re after, don’t count out the competition’s $78 million dark moose. ”Rocky and Bullwinkle is perfect counterprogramming, don’t you think?” boasts Nikki Rocco, president of distribution at Universal. Ingrassia agrees. Gibson’s and Clooney’s flicks, he says, ”are going to split the adult demo down the middle,” leaving the Robert De Niro-starring adaptation of the family-friendly Cold War cartoon to take a nice chunk of the Fourth pie. And there’ll be plenty to go around, says Warner Bros. exec Dan Fellman. ”In ’99, you had Wild Wild West, Big Daddy, and Tarzan,” which grossed $36, $28, and $19 million, respectively, over the weekend. ”So there’s room for business out there.”

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