Forget the universe. Hollywood needs Men in Black to save the summer.

The sci-fi comedy with to-die-for buzz (stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are already on the cover of Newsweek) opens Wednesday with a big assignment--reignite a sagging movie season.

Summer box office is down 7.5 percent from this time last year, according to Paul Kagan Associates, a Monterey, California-based media research and consulting firm.

"The worst fears of the summer...were that the large action films would cannibalize each other," says Larry Gerbrandt, senior analyst for Paul Kagan. And right now, those fears are reality for squirming studio executives.

From Lost World to Con Air to Speed 2: Cruise Control to Batman & Robin and, now, to Face/Off, it's been one big action flick toppling another big action flick at the box office.

It's not this revolving door that's upsetting to Hollywood--it's the fact that second weekend box-office grosses are freefalling--from 35 percent dropoffs last year to 50 percent ones this year. In short: Moviegoers are grazing at the blockbuster buffet, and not leaping at the chance for seconds.

Multiplexes are filling seats, to be sure. Last weekend alone, four movies earned an average of $18.7 million, led by the John Woo-directed nonstop action-fest, Face/Off.

And, overall, box office for the year to date is running 11 percent ahead of 1996 levels, according to Gerbrandt. (Can you say "Star Wars re-releases?")

But it's doubtful any statistic can ease the pain of big-budget summer busts like Speed 2 (washing ashore with less than $38 million after three weeks), or Batman & Robin (plummeting 64 percent in ticket sales after only one weekend).

Among the rare gems performing better than expected, according to Gerbrandt, are: Julia Roberts' My Best Friend's Wedding and Mike Myers' Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

And now comes Men in Black. Gerbrandt says it only takes one mega-hit to right the summer, and this may be it. Polling data shows one of out four moviegoers wants to see the flick; four out of 10 young men.

Soon to join Men in Black in the battle against the summer blahs: Jodie Foster in Contact (July 11), Harrison Ford in Air Force One (July 25), and Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts in Conspiracy Theory (August 8).

Says Gerbrandt: "There's plenty of firepower left out there."

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