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For the Birds? 

This summer, penguins ruled while some studios drooled

It's a classic "chicken or the egg" scenario, although, given the nature of the 2005 summer season, perhaps we should change that to a "penguin or the egg" scenario. As dutifully reported throughout the hot-weather period by such movie-centric publications as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, the box office was in decline for the greater part of the summer, with the weekly totals lower than comparable time frames last summer. Understandably, it was a disturbing trend for everyone in the industry -- as tickets prices go up, so should box office receipts -- but no one knew exactly where to lay the blame. Were audiences staying away from the theater because the movies were so bad, or were the movies so bad because, thanks to the advent of DVDs, audiences had already begun staying at home?

Certainly, when corporate coffers tend to not get filled to the bursting point, panic sets in, as studio bigwigs, perhaps sensing a modern-day equivalent of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, begin to picture themselves leaping to their deaths from the top of the Hollywood sign. But truthfully, the situation doesn't seem nearly as bleak as painted. The quality of the films released these past four months were overall no better or worse than what we've been getting for the past several summers: There were some noteworthy blockbusters to go along with the duds and dogs, and we were able to once again count on the indies to pick up the slack when the big-ticket items left us wanting. As for the grosses -- sure, they may have slipped, but when seven of the season's pictures still managed to work their way onto the list of the all-time top 100 moneymakers, it's hard to muster many tears for the executive who may be forced to buy only one vacation home this year instead of two.

Admittedly, the summer got off to a less-than-rousing start on both the commercial and critical fronts. Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, sporting a hefty $130 million budget, was at worst supposed to be this summer's Troy -- a moneymaker -- and at best this summer's Gladiator -- a moneymaker and a multi-award winner. Instead, this dull saga tanked with the majority of critics and failed to lure audiences who apparently prefer to see Orlando Bloom as a supporting player in other people's blockbusters. The film ended up earning only $47 million domestically, though robust business overseas prevented it from being a complete debacle.

Twentieth Century Fox may have taken a bath with Kingdom of Heaven, but the studio didn't have to blubber for long: Less than two weeks later, it opened Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith. It'd be an understatement to declare that the Force was strong in this one: Not only did the film pack theaters for weeks on end (currently, it ranks number seven all-time, just below the first Spider-Man film and just above the third Lord of the Rings flick), but it also led the way for a string of summer '05 releases that proved to be potent earners.

It was a given that the summer's top three hits would be Sith, War of the Worlds and Batman Begins, and it was also a good bet that family friendly titles like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Madagascar would likewise clean up. But some surprises could be found further down the ranks.

Wedding Crashers had the makings of a sleeper hit, but $188 million (and counting)? That's even more than its raunchy predecessor There's Something About Mary grossed. The teaming of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith had the potential to lure large audiences, but $184 million doubtless exceeded everyone's expectations. So much for all that pre-release chatter about how their marriage-wrecking, real-life affair could potentially hurt the film.

And finally, who could have guessed that penguins would emerge as the season's multiplex sweethearts? These flightless birds first made their mark as scene-stealing supporting characters in Madagascar, but it was their starring roles in the documentary March of the Penguins that cemented their ascension to stardom. Capitalizing on the current wave of popularity for documentaries that began in earnest with Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, March quietly waddled its way up the charts, generating extraordinary word-of-mouth and landing bookings in theaters that usually don't screen nonfiction films. By summer's end, the movie had grossed $56 million, enough to make it the second highest earning documentary ever (bested only by Moore's $119 million hit Fahrenheit 9/11).

Still, not all of the surprises made investors happy. Director Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) had doubtless reached the point where he believed he could make a movie about a dripping faucet and it would automatically earn over $100 million. But his latest release, the muddled sci-fi yarn The Island, proved to be a well-deserved slap in the face: Made for approximately $125 million, the picture managed to scrape together a mere $36 million. Besides The Island and the aforementioned Kingdom of Heaven, other financial wipeouts included Stealth (cost: $100m; gross: $32m), The Great Raid (cost: $80m; gross: $8m) and most likely The Brothers Grimm, which opened with $16 million but seems unlikely to recoup its $88 million budget. As for the stars, Nicole Kidman continues to prove that her status as a great actress means nothing once she agrees to star in sub-par mainstream fodder (Bewitched did no better than last summer's The Stepford Wives), while the heralding of Will Ferrell as the new comic superstar seems premature given the middling grosses for both Bewitched and Kicking & Screaming.

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