Fat, Flightless Birds Waddle Off With Box Office

Since "Jaws," Hollywood has cashed in on the summertime box office. But this year, the studios can't wait for school to start. There is good news, however, especially if you live at the South Pole.

The penguins in "Madagascar" organized an escape from New York's Central Park Zoo, they hijacked the freighter and, so far, have filled it up with $450 million in box office receipts around the world. And that, as they say, ain't ice.

"March of the Penguins," an exquisite family film, has become the second-biggest grossing documentary ever. Yes, it's "The Year of the Penguin" and it's also the answer to this Hollywood riddle: What's black and white and green all over?

Unfortunately, the penguin is also a perfect symbol for most of Hollywood's other summer movies. It's a bird but it can't get off the ground.

The recipe for success was once a simple mix of special effects, lots of noise, a mega-hit director, and maybe a star to guide it all by. Not this summer.

"Stealth," "The Island" and "Kingdom of Heaven" -- all with A-list directors and B-list stars -- cost a cumulative $500 million, and they've brought in just over $100 million at the domestic box office. True, they've done better overseas. My theory: It's because fewer people overseas understand English.

By Labor Day, according to an estimate by The New York Times, the total box office will be down 9 percent, but because ticket prices have gone up, total admissions will be down 11.5 percent.

Some of the loss can be explained by competition from DVDs and video games and other new diversions. In past summers, action fans would see a film like "Batman Begins" as many times as they could. But this year, once or twice was enough, and Hollywood was disappointed even with that movie's $200 million gross.

Spare Us From "Trey Bigalo"

"Cinderella Man," one of the best films I've seen in years, didn't have a Cinderella ending. It was pulled from theaters in what should have been mid-run, because the studio didn't know how to sell a movie that serious in the summertime.

There were two genuine summer mega-hits, and -- no surprise -- they feature the four biggest names in movies: Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise ("War of the Worlds," $231 million), and George Lucas and Darth Vader ("Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," $379 million).

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" was an instant classic ($192 million). "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" was an instant surprise ($183 million), making it a great summer for Angelina Jolie. She got a baby, a beau and her biggest box office hit yet.

"The Longest Yard" ($157 million) and "Wedding Crashers" ($178 million) were blockbuster comedies because they delivered blockbuster laughs. But, be honest now, is there anyone, anywhere who is upset because there will never be a "Trey Bigalow," after a sequel that brought in just $17 million?

"The Dukes of Hazzard" earned a not-so-impressive $70 million, especially if you consider that the average Hollywood film now costs more than $90 million to make and market. Since "Dukes" is based on an American TV show, there isn't much hope for any overseas box office and there is no buzz about a sequel.

Here's another shocker: You don't want to take your kids to a movie about a drunken little league coach ("Bad News Bears," $32 million)?

How about the same movie, only this time with a narcissistic soccer coach? ("Kicking and Screaming, $52 million)? Not much better.

OK, let's try a hysterically manic basketball coach ("Rebound," $17 million)? Even worse.

When you read the gross box office numbers, keep in mind that the studio take is about half of that total. The cost of advertising and making prints to send to theaters is about $35 million for the average film.

Here's another brilliant idea: "The Honeymooners" has been on TV every day for 50 years thanks to reruns. The show is a classic. It's hysterical and free.

"Let's make 'The Honeymooners' into a movie," some genius must have said at a pitch session. "It won't be nearly as funny. And we'll never find stars to equal Jackie Gleason and Art Carney. So here's what we'll do instead: we'll charge people $8 to see it!"

"The Honeymooners" ended up grossing $13 million, of which the studio might have seen $7 million. And one critic, who shall be nameless, suggested that with one more film like this, the star of this film would have to change his name to "Cedric, the Artist Formerly Known as the Entertainer."

But there is hope. For the first time ever, Hollywood executives are mentioning the unmentionable: One reason people are staying away from the movies may be … the movies!

One studio head recently told the Times that some of the films his studio released this summer should never have been made. He wouldn't say which. I say, ask me!