A SUMMER OF DISCONTENT AT THE BOX OFFICE
Intelligence borrows but genius steals.
Movie making will forever be a business of copycats, but this summer the major studios may have cloned themselves out of another boffo box office.
Consider: Within a one-week period three science-flavored youth comedies are opening: Universal’s “Weird Science,” (which took in $4.8 million in its first weekend at 1,158 theaters) Tri-Star’s “Real Genius” and Disney’s “My Science Project.” It would take a real genius just to sort them out. Because of the similarity in titles and marketing, industry experts are convinced that it is virtually impossible for all three, if any, to succeed.
Such overlapping has plagued the studios all summer long. “There were too many pictures trying to reach the same audience,” says David Weitzner, 20th Century Fox marketing president. “There was a lot of meat thrown in the water; the surprise is that the sharks didn’t always show up.”
Too many movies and too many mediocre movies. These are the problems that have led to a respectable but less than anticipated summer box office. While the eight major studios are churning out 47 movies between Memorial Day and Labor Day (eight more than last year), industry analyst Art Murphy projects a domestic box-office take of about $1.35 billion, 14.5% below last summer’s record $1.58 billion. Says Murphy: “This is the slowest summer in the last five years.”
There have been bright spots--most notably Tri-Star’s “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” which has earned almost $140 million in 10 weeks at the box office, and Universal’s “Back to the Future,” which has taken in $82 million in its first month. But last summer’s bumper crop of blockbusters--"Ghostbusters,” “Purple Rain,” “Gremlins,” “The Karate Kid” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"--could not be matched. “Last summer benefited from an unprecedented number of $100-million grossers,” says director Steven Spielberg, on location in North Carolina shooting “The Color Purple.” “American moviegoers overate, and I think they are now on a diet which may last through Christmas.”
Did they overeat or did they lose their appetite from a spate of less-than-overwhelming pictures?
“There have been too many mediocre films and too many films that tend to look like one another,” says Laurence Mark, executive vice president of production at 20th Century Fox. “You read an ad and you truly think you’ve already seen the movie.”
With that pack mentality approach to movie making, release dates have been more critical than ever. Warner Bros.’ “Goonies,” for example, benefited from an early start date (June 7) and has earned $58.3 million in its first eight weeks. But “Explorers,” a $24-million kids adventure-fantasy that Paramount Pictures had high hopes for, quickly fizzled at the box office. “Here was a wonderful piece of material,” says one executive connected with the film. “But by the time it came out, you felt as though you’d already seen it.”
Similarly, Warner Bros.’ Clint Eastwood Western “Pale Rider” ($38.3 million to date) had a two-week gallop on its competition and has doubled Columbia’s “Silverado” take, the summer’s only other shoot-'em-up.
“When you are in that sort of a position, being first is best,” says Barry London, Paramount’s president of domestic distribution. “The competition has to separate their product from you.” The mediocre returns on both of these Westerns may sound the death knell for this once- sturdy genre. “The first thing TV usurped was the Western,” says Sumner Redstone, president of the 350-theater National Amusements. “It’s just a bad gamble.”
In contrast to last summer, when the major studios “front-loaded” their movies--opening the bulk of them in June and July because of the Olympics--this summer seems more balanced. While grosses dropped about 40% in its second weekend, “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” has already earned $27.4 million in its first 10 days. “I don’t care what the reviews say, the fact is the audience loves the movie,” says Alan Friedberg, president of the 192 Sack theaters.
Still to come are comedies like Paramount’s “Summer Rental” (one of three summer movies starring John Candy) and Columbia’s “Fright Night,” which earned $6.1 million in its first weekend at 1,500 theaters. If any of the above perform well at the box office, there’s a good chance ticket sales for this month will exceed that of August levels in 1984.
This summer blizzard of celluloid is simply part of a typical business cycle, says analyst Murphy. He argues that the slackening in summer business is part of a recession that hit the movie business in January. The last such recession lasted from the fall of 1979 through June, 1981, ending with the opening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
A couple of very good years at the box office attracted a number of new players in movie production, most notably Tri-Star Pictures, which has led to more movies being made. “Success brings more players to the table,” says Paramount’s London. It also brings more mediocre movies to the screen, part of what some observers have nervously tagged the “product glut.”
Says Murphy: “No matter how well heeled, any new company starts with the rejects. These dead turnaround projects (movie ideas rejected by one studio are often picked up by the competition) rise from the grave and the newcomers welcome these rotted corpses. Eventually the public turns off and belts are tightened. Two years from now you’ll see better films that will fuel the uptick and the cycle will begin again. It’s Economics 101.”
“It’s a very crowded marketplace,” says Stephen Randall, Tri-Star executive vice president of marketing. “In terms of competitiveness, this is one of the toughest summers in recent years.” Still, no matter how many films are put out, audiences seem to be able to find the ones they like. “When there is something out there they want to see, they’ll go see it,” says Friedberg.
This summer, the movie that audiences wanted to see above all the rest was clearly “Rambo.” For a variety of reasons, this macho summer soldier grabbed the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of the moviegoing public. “It’s hard to confuse this movie with anything else,” says Randall.
Next summer, look for fewer films but don’t be surprised if once again the studios bank at least in part on another crop of derivative look-alikes and play-it-safe sequels. Bond will be back. Chevy Chase may pack his family on the shuttle. And look for Rambo III: An unconfirmed rumor has it that Rocky will fight Rambo to the death. Maybe they’ll call it “Last Blood,” but the whole scenario seems unlikely.
In Hollywood, only the dogs die young