Can 'War' Bring Box Office Joy?

In this photo provided by Paramount Pictures, Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a man who would do anything to protect his daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning, right), during a catastrophic alien attack in War of the Worlds, (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures/Frank Connor)
AP Photo/Paramount Pictures
Even the combined powers of Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise and H.G. Wells may be unable to snap Hollywood's longest modern losing streak. "War of the Worlds," Spielberg and Cruise's take on Wells' alien invasion classic, opened Wednesday as a longshot to end a slump in which domestic movie revenues have declined for 18 straight weekends compared to 2004.

The year has produced about as many hits as Hollywood typically musters, but they are not proving quite the draws that last year's top films were.

The Jedi and villains of the year's biggest hit, "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith," held less appeal than the fairy-tale creatures of last year's "Shrek 2." The talking animals of "Madagascar" had less pull than the whiz kids of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."

As big a debut as "War of the Worlds" may have, it opens over the same long weekend as last year's "Spider-Man 2," whose record $180.1 million in its first six days paced the industry to its best Fourth of July ever.

"It's too early to say if this is something endemic. The most apparent answer still seems to be the movies themselves have lacked the same excitement, to put it mildly," said Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, an online site that tracks movie grosses. "But the audience is still there, as evidenced by 'Revenge of the Sith' breaking nearly every record in its first week. If Hollywood builds it, audiences will come. But Hollywood hasn't been building it lately."

The industry has lacked the big surprises that get moviegoers buzzing, such as last year's "The Passion of the Christ" and "Fahrenheit 9/11," which combined for nearly $500 million in receipts, 5 percent of 2004's domestic theater revenues.

Also missing is a strong undercard of out-of-the-blue independent hits. Last year, a handful of films that emerged from the Sundance Film Festival — "Napoleon Dynamite," "Open Water" and "Garden State" among them — padded the box office by more than $100 million.

There's been a good mix of genres: family films, action flicks, romantic comedy, horror tales and drama. So studios cannot be blamed for failing to offer something for everyone.

Early on, Hollywood bean counters attributed this year's revenue decline to a succession of ho-hum movies that did not click with audiences.

Studio executives still hope that's the case and revenues will rebound with better movies. But the fear is that with growing competition for people's time and money from DVDs and other home-entertainment options, theater business may be on the wane for good.

"In the beginning, I said yes, it was the movies, but now I don't know," said Nikki Rocco, head of distribution for Universal, which has had a disappointing summer with such underachieving movies as "Cinderella Man" and "Kicking & Screaming." "I am concerned myself, especially when you have such a variety out there for everybody every weekend."

Other summer duds included "XXX: State of the Union," "Kingdom of Heaven," "House of Wax," "The Honeymooners" and "The Lords of Dogtown." Reviews for those movies were mixed to bad, yet plenty of past movies that got the cold shoulder from critics still became hits.