Had recent history played out differently, we'd be writing about how ''Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle'' is kicking into high gear at the box office, ''The Hulk'' is stomping on the competition, and ''Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd'' is laughing all the way to the bank. Alas, given the disappointing performances of these and other major summer movies, we're left without such clever puns... and studio execs are left scratching their heads. Overall, according to Nielsen EDI, the season's total receipts are down 3.4 percent, or $71 million, from last year's record earnings. While ''Finding Nemo,'' ''Bruce Almighty,'' ''X2: X-Men United,'' and ''The Matrix Reloaded'' are smash hits, any celebration is tempered by the vast sums spent producing and marketing them ($100 million used to be the benchmark of a blockbuster; now a film needs to clear $200 million to earn that tag). How can Hollywood break the slump? Here are the lessons so far from 2003's box office summer school.
OPEN BIG, OR DIE Scoff all you want when we call ''Angels''' $38 million opening a letdown, but given the crowded market, it probably needed to open at twice that for Sony suits to sleep easy. ''When you know that there's another blockbuster a week behind you,'' says an exec at a competing studio, ''you want to earn as much as you can as quickly as you can.'' Case in point: ''Hulk,'' which bowed at $62 million only to see sales plummet a monstrous 70 percent in week 2 when viewers' attention moved on to ''Angels'' and the horror sleeper hit ''28 Days Later.'' ''I remember when I would go to the movies and if a film was sold out, that made me want to see it more,'' says DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press. But now, when so many movies open on multiple screens in the same cineplex, ''everything shows every 10 minutes?there's no problem getting in.'' The excitement that builds for a movie after its release is replaced by the publicity blitz for the next wannabe blockbuster.
''I'LL BE BACK'' IS NOT A GUARANTEE No summer is complete without a glut of sequels; nine have opened since May. But while ''Matrix'' and ''X2'' (remember them?) came charging out of the gate early, recent openers ''Dumb and Dumberer'' and ''Rugrats Go Wild!'' stumbled from the start. Why? ''You better give people a reason to go back to 'Whatever It Is 2,''' says ''Matrix'' exec producer Bruce Berman, who thinks viewers reject sequels that just rehash their predecessors. Seconds Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of ''Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl'' and July 18's ''Bad Boys II'': ''If you make a franchise picture and it's good, audiences are going to be there.'' Sounds simple, but how it bodes for ''Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life'' and ''American Wedding'' is anyone's guess.
TALK TO THE FRIENDS People recommending movies to their pals is still key. It's a big part of what made ''Finding Nemo'' summer's top earner so far (and what will determine the fate of ''Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines''). It's what has put the MINI Cooper caper ''The Italian Job'' and even?dare we say?''Daddy Day Care'' on course for reasonably big paydays, while ''Alex & Emma'' and ''Hollywood Homicide'' fell by the wayside. It's also what less bombastic films like July 25's Oscar-baiting ''Seabiscuit'' hope will lead them to the finish line. ''Audiences are smart,'' says ''Seabiscuit'' producer Frank Marshall. ''They might go along with you that first weekend, but after that it's all about word of mouth.''
IT'S THE QUALITY, STUPID And ''Nemo'' proves it swimmingly. But art-house hits like ''Spellbound'' and ''Whale Rider'' have also drawn on appealing stories and artistic sensibilities to be heard in a season when viewers' ears are ringing from thunderous car chases. ''There's a tremendous demand for [alternative] films,'' says Stephen Gilula, distribution president at Fox Searchlight, home of ''28 Days Later.'' ''There's a very diverse audience in this country and they like all kinds of movies.'' All kinds, sure. But thankfully not ''From Justin to Kelly.''