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The Cat's Meow 

Summer flicks often had audiences purring with pleasure

It's been duly noted that every dog has his day, but this summer appeared to be the exclusive domain of the cat.

The summer's biggest blockbuster, Shrek 2, was stolen right out from under Shrek and Donkey by one of the supporting characters: Puss In Boots, a swashbuckling feline voiced by Antonio Banderas. Two Brothers, the best family film that no one saw, centered on the adventures of two tigers. Garfield: The Movie, the worst family film that far too many people saw, transferred the exploits of the fat cat from the comics page to the big screen. And naturally we can't forget Catwoman, a picture guaranteed to emerge over time as a camp classic.

Of course, it's not as if the simultaneous emergence of all this catnip is anything but a coincidence (though I wouldn't put it past the makers of last year's The Cat In the Hat to try to snatch credit), but it nevertheless was one of the few interesting themes to emerge from the movie summer of 2004, a period in which the biggest surprise was that there really weren't that many surprises.

As expected, the season's biggest titles were pre-sold commodities. A quick glance at which movies raked in the dough (see sidebar) reveals that the three top-grossing features were all follow-ups to earlier studio successes. Shrek 2 managed to bury not only its predecessor but most other blockbusters as well: It recently passed one-time champ E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to settle into the #3 slot on the all-time list (it still trails Titanic and Star Wars). Spider-Man 2, while unable to equal the gross of the 2002 original, still banked enough green to join its forerunner in the all-time Top 10. And even though Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban didn't match the takes of the first two HP flicks (um, maybe because it wasn't as good?), its massive haul was a far cry from the third-act financial plummet of another Warner Bros. franchise entry, The Matrix Revolutions.

The lucre for the Potter film also points to another reliable truth -- studios can usually depend on the international market to line their pockets even further. Harry Potter may have earned a sizable $247 million stateside, but in the rest of the world, it's scored a colossal $505 million. But perhaps nowhere is the importance of the foreign market more obvious than with Troy, for my money the best of the summer blockbusters (see side article). In the US, Troy earned $133 million, a decent sum that still wasn't enough to make up for its $175 million price tag. Not to worry: The international crowd, traditionally more open to embracing historical sagas and period costumers (The Last Samurai and Gladiator also proved more potent away from our shores), have turned out for the film to the tune of $358 million, enough to place it among the 20 most successful movies ever released in countries not having to contend on a daily basis with the lunacy of Bill O'Reilly, the lies of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth or the looming danger of those Republican-controlled Diebold voting machines.

And hey, since we're suddenly on the subject of politics, how about that Fahrenheit 9/11? That the movie has emerged as the top-grossing documentary is no surprise -- given all the pre-release press it was a given it would set a new record for nonfiction films. But $116 million, more than five times the amount earned by the previous record-holder (Moore's Bowling for Columbine)? That's downright astonishing, as well as an encouraging sign that there are still numerous Americans who care about this country enough to pay attention to what's really going on. The movie's October 5 debut on video and DVD will hopefully help a few more "Undecideds" wake up and smell the corruption.

Fahrenheit 9/11 may have surprised some box office prognosticators with the potency of its appeal, but other movies were far easier to call. It seemed fairly obvious that King Arthur, Around the World In 80 Days, The Chronicles of Riddick and Thunderbirds were all destined to be massive underperformers, just as it seemed likely that Napoleon Dynamite and Open Water would be indie hits when their peanut-sized budgets were taken into account. And while Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story has been tagged a sleeper in several quarters, its success shouldn't have been that much of a surprise: In addition to the fact that Americans love their dum-dum comedies -- both the good ones (Dodgeball) and the bad ones (the midrange hit Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) -- the law of averages insured that it was only a matter of time before Ben "I'm in every other movie" Stiller would score another $100 million grosser.

On the other hand, the shock of the season was arguably the low-altitude returns for The Terminal -- not exactly a flop, but the third teaming of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks certainly promised more than a $77 million haul (a better script might have helped it at least cross the century mark). Right behind it was M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, a $108-million grosser (and fading fast) which left fans of the director's Signs and The Sixth Sense not only disappointed but downright pissed.

Finally, the strategy of counter-programming didn't always work (Raising Helen and The Clearing both sank without a trace), but The Notebook took that formula and ran with it. While never flirting with the top of the weekly chart during its entire run, this romantic drama quietly kept adding a few million more to the till on a steady basis, enough so that the next time anyone bothered to check, this $30 million production had earned a solid $76 million. In a season typically dominated by loud studio hype, it's always nice to know that whispery word-of-mouth still counts for something.

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