Hollywood hopes fall, Christmas movies will redeem summer slump

September 10, 1991|By David J. Fox | David J. Fox,Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD -- OK, so moviegoers didn't rewrite the box-office record books this summer. There's still the fall and Christmas seasons.

That's the way insiders in the film business are looking at the big picture, hoping that the upcoming crop of movies will make up for the slump in movie admissions. So far, 1991 is about 3 percent behind last year's totals, and about 6 percent off 1989's, the industry's best year ever.

The movie industry grossed an estimated $1.6 billion between May 17 and the Labor Day weekend, the fourth highest summer period ever, but off about 11 percent from last summer, according to John Krier of Exhibitor Relations, a company that tracks box-office data. The biggest summer ever was 1989 -- the year of the smash hit "Batman," when the industry sold slightly more than $1.8 billion worth of tickets.

But some anticipate a rebound. "We think late September and Christmas will be especially good moviegoing times," predicted John Neal, senior vice president of the 2,400 screen Denver-based United Artists Entertainment Co. Among

them, Barbra Streisand's "The Prince of Tides," Steven Spielberg's "Hook" and Garry Marshall's "Frankie & Johnny."

"By no means was this summer a disaster, as some had predicted at the start," Krier said. "While business may have been off for summer, the year so far has been good for the exhibition industry due to a strong first quarter," which included big audiences for "Dances With Wolves, "Home Alone" and "Silence of the Lambs."

Krier said the industry places so much emphasis on June, July and August grosses because that is the period that often accounts for as much as 40 percent of the entire year's box office.

The special effects-laden, $90 million-budgeted "Terminator 2" with Arnold Schwarzenegger wound up as this season's No. 1 film, selling $183 million worth of tickets in the United States. In summer 1990, the Schwarzenegger star vehicle "Total Recall" grossed $117 million and placed second, only slightly behind the hit "Ghost," which did $126 million in business by summer's end.

Three movies topped the magic $100 million mark this summer. hTC In addition to "Terminator 2," there was "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," starring Kevin Costner ($151 million), and "City Slickers," starring Billy Crystal ($113 million). Last year, four films topped $100 million: "Ghost," "Total Recall," "Die Hard 2" and "Dick Tracy."

But the moderately good summer box office news overall was offset by reports of the movie industry's rising costs and smaller profit margins, as well as a weak late July and August, in which box office grosses fell a whopping 25 percent, according to estimates by the trade newspaper Daily Variety.

This summer, there was no surprise hit like last year's "Ghost" to rejuvenate audience interest. In fact, the surprise this year was the disappointing results of movies that many in the industry predicted would draw far greater audiences than they did. Among them, "Dying Young," "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey," "The Rocketeer" and "Backdraft."

The public's interest in moviegoing fell so much that late summer truly became the dog days for Hollywood. Many of the new films were almost instant casualties. Among them: "V.I. Warshawski," with Kathleen Turner; "Return to the Blue Lagoon"; "Delirious," .. with John Candy; "Mobsters"; "Regarding Henry," with Harrison Ford.

"There haven't been the big follow-up pictures late in the summer to keep the momentum going from 'Terminator 2,' " said Neal of United Artists Entertainment.

The August release of "Hot Shots" with Charlie Sheen, "Doc Hollywood" with Michael J. Fox and Kenneth Branagh's "Dead Again" saved the month from becoming a total box-office wipe-out.

Hollywood's emphasis on box-office numbers can be deceivin when figured on a movie-by-movie basis.

At the top of this summer, for instance, roughly 45 major releases were announced, worth an aggregate investment of roughly $1.8 billion -- based on an average costs of $40 million for production and market ing costs. Even at a superficial glance, this summer's ticket sales of an estimated $1.6 billion don't quite cover the investment, and most certainly won't cover the cost once the theater operators deduct their share of the grosses.

But as industry analysts such as A.D. Murphy point out, typically the producers and distributors hope to recoup only a portion of their investment -- perhaps as little as 20 percent -- at the U.S. box office.

"We see the films come and go from the marketplace. But they look at films in terms of their five- to-seven-year shelf life," Murphy said.

On the statistical average, he said, distributors and producers know they will regain their investment, and then some, with income from international box office, cable, broadcast TV, home video and other related markets such as publishing and music.

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