LOS ANGELES What if you spent hundreds of millions of dollars making and marketing a bunch of movies and nobody cared enough to watch them?
Hollywood is living out that nightmare as it suffers through its longest box office slump in five years.
The summer season's first big release, "Kingdom of Heaven," made just $19.6 million domestically over the weekend, even less than distributor 20th Century Fox originally estimated, according to final box office figures released Monday.
The lackluster performance of "Heaven," a historical epic directed by Ridley Scott, contributed to the 11th-consecutive weekend in which grosses were lower than those from the same weekend last year. That puts 2005's box office receipts 5.6 percent behind last year.
Even more troubling is that actual ticket sales trail 2004's by 8.4 percent with Hollywood's best hope for a turnaround "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith" not due until later this month.
"We have a situation at the box office right now where people just aren't excited to go to their local multiplex," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com. "They look at the marquee and just yawn."
The only 2005 releases to cross the $100 million mark domestically have been the Will Smith romantic comedy "Hitch," which is the highest-grossing movie of the year with $177.6 million in ticket sales, and the Vin Diesel family comedy "The Pacifier," which has been a surprise smash, earning $109.4 million to date.
"We always hope and expect to have a surprise hit or two in the year but we haven't had that this year," said John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. "But our view is that it is primarily related to the product released in that period and not any cause for structural concern."
One problem has been several disappointing sequels in 2005. "XXX: State of the Union" was not only missing original franchise star Diesel, but also missing an audience. It's made a paltry $20.9 million over two weeks.
The Sandra Bullock comedy "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous" has earned a disappointing $45.9 million domestically, less than half of what "Miss Congeniality" grossed in 2001; "The Ring Two" also never really caught fire and has peaked at $75.9 million. "The Ring" made $128.6 million during its run in 2003.
Many movies opened strong but never crossed the line to major hit. Among them: the Matthew MacConaughey adventure "Sahara" ($61.7 million); the scary remake "The Amityville Horror" ($60.3 million); the violent drama "Sin City" ($72.2 million); the Ashton Kutcher/Bernie Mac comedy "Guess Who" ($67.1 million); and the Keanu Reeves thriller "Constantine" ($75.2 million).
"It is disappointing that the box office is down; however, I don't think anyone should panic at this early state," said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. Pictures. "A lot of terrific movies are opening up in the next several weeks and it would not surprise me to see the box office rebound very strong."
The summer movie season, which begins during the first weekend in May and lasts through Labor Day weekend, accounts for about 40 percent of the entire year's movie grosses.
Next weekend, several new wide releases will attempt to stir up audience interest including the Will Ferrell comedy "Kicking and Screaming."
Of much interest is the comedy "Monster-in-Law," which features two-time Oscar winner Jane Fonda in her first film role in 15 years opposite Jennifer Lopez. The return of Barbra Streisand to the big screen after an eight-year hiatus is said to have contributed greatly to the success of the smash comedy "Meet the Fockers," which grossed $279.2 million domestically.
"I think Streisand has more appeal than Jane Fonda, but I think it's going to do pretty well with its core audience of adult women," Pandya said. "It will do OK with adult men and I think (Lopez) brings in a multicultural audience. But it's not the kind of mega-hit that can turn this box office drought around."
Most experts agree the movie industry will most certainly rebound in a big way May 19 with the release of the highly anticipated and critically acclaimed sixth "Star Wars" movie written and directed by George Lucas.
All five previous "Star Wars" films are among the highest-grossing movies ever and "Sith" is a key chapter that wraps up a story line that has engrossed devoted fans since 1977.
"We have never needed a 'Star Wars' movie like we do right now," said box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. "Audiences have just kind of checked out and George Lucas is just going to check them back in. Lucas is going to come in to save the day."