Hollywood: The New Movie Math

Hollywood seems to set a new box-office record every weekend. Or is it just concocting them? "Signs" was "the biggest debut for a film starring Mel Gibson." "Austin Powers in Goldmember" claimed "the biggest opening ever for a comedy and the biggest July opening for a movie of any genre." "Scooby-Doo" was "the best June opening for a movie based on a cartoon show starring a crimefighting Great Dane." (OK, we made that one up.)

What the studios aren't saying is that in the second weekend, most of these "record-setters" dropped like ImClone stock. Traditionally, a movie's falloff during the second weekend has been the measure of its staying power, or "legs." Any movie that fell more than 50 percent the second weekend was deemed a flop. ("Titanic," the highest-grossing film ever, actually rose 24 percent its second weekend.) Yet this summer's "Austin Powers" collapsed 57 percent, "Men in Black II" 53 percent and "Scooby-Doo" 55 percent, and all are blockbuster hits. Can show-business math get any crazier?

Thanks to megaplexes, studios can release a film on more than 6,000 screens. So by the time advertising-bombarded moviegoers realize a new film isn't very good, the studio has already banked a fortune. (The formula doesn't apply to stinkers like "K-19: The Widowmaker" and "Reign of Fire," which didn't enjoy even one good weekend.) These free falls make the success of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" even more extraordinary. It won't touch "Spider-Man" as the summer's top hit, but the romantic comedy is virtually the season's only movie with legs. Released in April, the $5 million "Greek Wedding" keeps climbing, often improving more than 20 percent a weekend. It could end up with some $60 million, more than would-be blockbuster "Stuart Little 2."