LOS ANGELES—Unsettled by U.S. military action abroad and economic struggles at home, Americans say they are desperate for the stability of an unchanging number-one movie at the box office.
"Although several summer blockbusters had successful opening weekends, only Finding Nemo has held the top slot for more than a week or two," said Andrew Kohler, chairman of the Citizens for Consistent Cinema (CCC). "This has caused unease and confusion for millions of Americans."
"With a new top movie every week, the average American can neither keep up nor move on," Kohler continued. "In times of national and international turmoil, we need a summer smash to calm our nerves. Unfortunately, few of the summer's major releases have had box-office staying-power."
The Matrix Reloaded and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, two highly anticipated sequels, both opened at number one, only to fall from the top slot the very next week. Kohler said this typifies the uncertainty at the box office this summer.
"After suffering a long spring of one-weekend hits, the nation was waiting for a single movie to emerge from the pack and take the lead," Kohler said. "That movie never came. Not Hulk or T3, and certainly not The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen."
According to Kohler, no movie has topped the chart for more than four weeks since Sept. 11, but in the last six months, even three-week reigns have been infrequent. The high rate of turnover at the box office has resulted in what Kohler terms "pop-culture vertigo."
"Not one of these movies has had any major impact on the national consciousness," Kohler said. "Yes, many people saw Bad Boys II. But who saw it twice? Who is quoting lines from it? Who is planning a Halloween costume based on one of its characters?"
In contrast, Kohler points to previous summers, when movies like Batman, Independence Day, and Star Wars: Episode I united us as a people.
"When Jurassic Park came out, everyone at work was talking about it, all the talk shows were doing skits about it, and the tie-in products were everywhere," Kohler said. "It wasn't a good movie, but it was a huge movie. We knew who we were and what we had to do: We had to see Jurassic Park."
Omaha elementary-school teacher Janice Daly fondly recalled the comfort reliable box-office charts gave her in 1998.
"Clinton was embroiled in scandals, the terrorists had attacked American military sites, and we were bombing suspected al Qaeda camps in Sudan," Daly said. "But every weekend, I could open up the paper and see Titanic sitting right there at number one. We had something we could all believe in as Americans. In my time of need, that movie never let me down."
Few moviegoers have found such solace on the big screen this year.
"I was excited when Anger Management was number one for two weeks," said Richard Jackson, a master carpenter unemployed since February. "Then, along came Identity and knocked it off. The very next week, X2: X-Men United opened and knocked out Identity. Doesn't Hollywood know that the people of this country need some stability in our lives?"
Oliver Reynolds, an 18-year-old Pizza Hut deliveryman, was particularly stricken by the summer's jumble of one-week wonders.
"I was counting the days until The Matrix Reloaded's opening night," Reynolds said. "After my folks split up, I needed something steady to rely on. After more than a year of hype, I thought it'd rule theaters for months. I thought my friends and I would go, like, 10 times."
"We all know how that ended," he added.
Some experts say the trend may have lasting effects.
"If no film manages to dramatically outdraw its competition before the end of summer, our national identity will be called into question," said Dr. Alison Weisgall, sociologist and author of Hollywood Heartbreak: A Nation Abandoned By Its Entertainment Industry. "If the world's dominant superpower can't produce a reliable, record-breaking hit at the box office, then what is it? And, by extension, who are we?"
But Weisgall said she sees no steady box-office front-runner in sight.
"With the next Harry Potter movie not slated until next summer, 2003 is shaping up to be the most chaotic box-office year of the new millennium," Weisgall said. "Unless America finds the anchor it so desperately needs in S.W.A.T. or Freddy Vs. Jason, I fear for us all."