There may be four weekends between now and Labor Day, but as far as Hollywood is concerned, this summer is all but over — and it's time to declare the winners and losers.
Anticipating competition from the Olympics, the studios are already dumping their questionable end-of-season merchandise into theaters.
"Alien vs. Predator" (search) opens Friday without advance critics' screenings, an anticipate-negative-reviews strategy also being followed by next Friday's "The Exorcist: In the Beginning."
There's some interest in how much Tom Cruise's "Collateral" (search) will fall from its less-than-spectacular opening last week — and whether the scary indie "Open Water" (search) will sustain boffo numbers as it moves into wide release today — but it's otherwise pretty clear how the season (which Hollywood reckons began at the beginning of May) has shaken out.
Through last weekend, business was up about 5 percent over last summer — roughly even, if you take rising ticket prices into account. In the absence of any strong new titles, the season's business is expected to drop slightly from 2003's pace by Labor Day.
It was a big summer for sequels, with follow-ups capturing four of the five top positions at the box-office.
" 'Shrek 2' did a lot more business than expected and will push past 'E.T.' to become the No. 3 blockbuster of all time," predicts Gitesh Pandya, analyst for boxofficeguru.com.
While "Spider-Man 2" didn't reach the stellar heights of the original, he said, "it did well enough to warrant at least two more sequels."
"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" was the lowest grossing of the three Potter films to date, but it posted strong enough foreign numbers ($725 million to date) for it to pull ahead of "Spidey 2" ($658 million) in worldwide grosses.
More surprising was "The Bourne Supremacy," with an opening that surpassed all the James Bond pictures, and "The Day After Tomorrow," a groan-inducing sci-fi epic that defied negative reviews on the strength of great special effects.
And "Troy," which reportedly cost $250 million to make, might look like a loser with a mere $133 domestic gross, but Brad Pitt's overseas business was positively heroic — $489 million to date. Domestically, "Troy" came in at No. 7, after "I, Robot" ($140 million).
Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" justifiably captured headlines for generating blockbuster numbers for a documentary: It stands to make about $125 million. (Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" was a runaway hit with just $20 million.)
But the summer's real sleeper was the weepie "The Notebook," which, thanks to remarkably steady business, will end up with something like $80 million in the bank for a movie that cost under $20 million.
"It's an old-fashioned, word-of-mouth hit," said Pandya.
Another shocker was the little heralded "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," which has racked up $122 million by opening in a comedy-starved marketplace.
On the non-Moore indie front, the big winner was the micro-budgeted, slowly expanding "Napoleon Dynamite," which could end up with as much as $20 million before the leaves turn.
"The Village" is Disney's first hit after a string of high-profile flops — including the pricey "Around the World in 80 Days" (which made a mere $24 million) and "King Arthur" ($52 million).
But with a steep 67 percent drop following its $50 million opening, "The Village" is a blow to Disney's attempts to establish director M. Night Shyamalan as a name who can sell a thriller light on stars, unlike his previous "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs."
A lousy script didn't help, either.
It wasn't a great summer for Paramount, either, which came up with under-par numbers for two pricey, star-filled productions from Scott Rudin (who also did the honors on "The Village").
Many insiders questioned the wisdom of opening "The Manchurian Candidate," which is expected to top out around $65 million, in the middle of the summer (and right on the heels of the Democratic Convention).
The studio did even worse with "The Stepford Wives," a disjointed satire with a troubled production history that took in only $59 million despite massive hype.
And then there was the much-anticipated "Van Helsing," which took in $120 million — enough to make it the season's No. 10 grosser. But it had a reported $175 million budget and Universal's hopes of reviving its monster franchises were cruelly dashed.
Even Steven Spielberg had a rough time: "The Terminal" is expected to top out with a less-than-spectacular $80 million, Tom Hanks notwithstanding.
"Catwoman" will be lucky to claw its way to $40 million — an embarrassment for a stillborn franchise that cost around $100 million and starred Oscar-winner Halle Berry.
Similarly, "The Chronicles of Riddick" ($58 million) may have roadblocked Vin Diesel's overhyped career with a $100 million sequel to a movie few people saw ("Pitch Black") — and which nearly every critic on the planet called "riddick-ulous."
"Raising Helen" ($37 million) did no favors for Kate Hudson's dimming star, and the pathetic returns from "New York Minute" ($14 million) may well encourage the Olsen twins to study up at NYU.