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The success of more cerebral cinema -- think "The Truman Show," "Saving Private Ryan" -- is prompting studios to produce less mind-numbing flicks

Movie studios already looking to next summer's slate

Web posted on: Wednesday, September 16, 1998 2:59:24 PM

By Richard Natale

NEW YORK -- Yes, the weather's still hot, but as far as the studios are concerned, summer is over and it's time to start thinking about ... next summer.

With the industry's busiest season winding down, and the holiday releases more or less set, planning for next year is under way -- and Summer 1999 is beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Perhaps it's millennial jitters, but the dumb-disaster-film craze seems to have abated and the commercial fare for next summer is not all that different from what is released during the holiday season. Stirred by the success of such major summer hits as "The Truman Show" and "Saving Private Ryan," there is at least a vague attempt to put some gray matter back into mindless entertainment.

"Summer is the best time for playing almost anything," says Sony Pictures co-vice chairman Gareth Wigan, "but it has to be really good and have meat on its bones. And that applies to traditional action movies as much as anything else."

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Expanded dramatic license

Disney senior executive Dick Cook admits, "The audience for dramas has always been there in the summer. It was there for us when we opened 'Dead Poets Society.' But it's always been about having the nerve to program dramas into summer. But at least on paper, next summer looks to be more diverse."

Disney has already slotted Spike Lee's "The Summer of Sam" for the season. It stars John Leguizamo in a drama about the Italian American experience in New York. The studio is also looking at other dramas, including "Instinct," which stars Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding Jr., and director Michael Mann's as-yet-untitled film about tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand.

Sony has "Random Hearts," in which Kristin Scott Thomas stars with Harrison Ford in a romantic drama about a widowed pair who fall in love only to discover that their deceased spouses had been involved.

"The Green Mile," based on a Stephen King novel, is a serious prison drama directed by Frank Darabont, who brought us "The Shawshank Redemption" -- which may have been more of a critical hit than a commercial one, but it didn't star Tom Hanks, which "The Green Mile" does.

And Kevin Costner is expected to be back where he belongs, behind the plate, in another baseball drama, "For Love of the Game."

Tom Hanks will star in "The Green Mile," based on the Steven King novel

Pendulum swinging away from action barrage

But don't imagine next summer as a spate of Antonioni or Bresson remakes. If anything, it's a return to time-honored genres -- a little romance, comedy and horror -- different but still the same. And while there will be action films, they won't be present in the kind of overwhelming numbers of the past couple of years almost to the exclusion of other kinds of films.

"It's cyclical," observes Buena Vista distribution chief Phil Barlow. "There's a normal cycle, and then there's a counter-cycle. If you have too many sequels, people get turned off. Then you get new movies and the cycle starts all over again."

As of now, the studios' summer '99 slate is far from complete. There will be additions and subtractions over the next several months as several pending deals fall into place (or not), and other films scheduled for the season are pushed up or back to fill in gaps in the studios' annual schedules or to more effectively compete with one another.

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'Star Wars' prequel coming

The two tent poles for the season, which, like "Godzilla" and "Armageddon" this year, have staked out the Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends, respectively, are the new "Star Wars" and the special-effects-laden "The Wild, Wild West," starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline, based on the popular tongue-in-cheek western TV series.

"Star Wars" comes first, on May 21, and even in a town where no one knows anything, everyone knows it's going to be a smash.

The final summer of the century will be old home week for filmgoers with several other sequels planned. New Line Cinema figures that putting two horror franchises together could be better than one. In "Freddy Vs. Jason," the beasts of "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th" meet in battle.

Mike Myers will also be back (not the scary one) to mine his enormously popular "Austin Powers" character in another wacky nostalgia trip down Carnaby Street.

The list of remakes and updates is headed by "The Mummy." A deluxe version of the Universal low-budget black-and-white original, it will be unwrapped starring Brendan Fraser and will attempt to pull a "Deep Impact" by being the early bird, getting into theaters on May 7.

There's another "Tarzan" (yes, again), this time via the magicians of Disney animation. And Tim Burton has re-imagined Washington Irving's classic "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" starring his "Edward Scissorhands" Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci.

Together again for the second time will be "Pretty Woman" co-stars Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in another romantic comedy, "The Runaway Bride," again under the supervision of director Garry Marshall. Other potentially interesting pairings are John Travolta and Madeline Stowe in the military thriller "The General's Daughter."

In yet another remake, "The Thomas Crown Affair," Pierce Brosnan will try to outwit and seduce Rene Russo and attempt to make us forget Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in the '60s original.

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Crowded cartoon field

Disney will not have the field all to itself next year as the animation wars heat up. Paramount may have a feature-film version of the scatologically inclined "South Park," directed by Trey Parker. Also for kids of all ages is "Muppets From Space" and Disney's family comedy "Inspector Gadget," a live-action version of an animated TV series about a bumbling sleuth described as a human Swiss army knife, starring Matthew Broderick. Other comic would-be superheroes are "Mystery Men," starring Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush and William H. Macy.

After largely ignoring comedy this year, the success of "Dr. Dolittle" and "There's Something About Mary" have thrown the majors into mea culpa mode, and they plan to atone next summer. Eddie Murphy will co-star with Steve Martin in "Bowfinger's Big Thing" about a crazed director who will do anything to break into movies.

Adam Sandler stars in "Guy Gets Kid," and "Dick" (described succinctly as "All the President's Men" meets "Clueless") has Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst as White House dog walkers who become a part of history.

Though not confirmed at press time, some other possible films for the season include a remake of "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," a live-action and animation film starring Jim Carrey in the role created by Don Knotts, or another Carrey vehicle, "Fool on the Hill"; an action film about genetically engineered sharks, "The Deep Blue Sea," directed by Renny Harlin; and Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Beach."

(c) 1998, Richard Natale. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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