Hollywood loves happy endings and that's just what it got from the laugh-heavy films packing theaters during the final weeks of 1987.
I don't know what it says about the status of motherhood in America, but the two hottest holiday movies were comedies having to do with (1) three bachelors struggling with a baby abandoned by its mother ("Three Men and a Baby") and (2) a middle-aged bachelor conspiring to do his mother in ("Throw Momma From the Train").
"Three Men and a Baby," a Disney/Touchstone film directed by Leonard Nimoy, played with some holiday records and when you count its take over the New Year's holiday, it has grossed a startling $83.9 million.
"Throw Momma From the Train," a black comedy that I fearlessly predicted would do less business than 11 other Christmas movies, opened big and has held on. It was the No. 2 film over New Year's and has talked moviegoers out of more than $38 million in less than three weeks.
"Three Men" and "Throw Momma" are going to be in theaters for a good part of 1988, as will "Broadcast News," which had a higher per-screen average over New Year's than any film in wide national release.
"Broadcast News" is playing in 673 theaters, compared to 1,804 for "Three Men" and 1,621 for "Throw Momma."
As the initial four-week contracts expire, a couple of Christmas movies are going to begin disappearing from the market, or hit the Sticky Floor Circuit, where you can see two or three of them for $1.50.
It was not a good Christmas for Bill Cosby. His "Leonard Part 6" was met with sustained disinterest in theaters and after 17 days had grossed just $4.6 million.
Over New Year's, theaters showing "Leonard" probably made more money from Red Vines sales than from admissions, and it was the holiday's biggest flop.
Actually, Eddie Murphy did better with Cosby than Cosby did with himself. One of the most quoted riffs from Murphy's concert film "Raw" is the young comedian's put-down of the Cos for advising him to clean up his act.
"Raw" tailed off badly over New Years, dropping 21% from a week earlier, and it figures to fade fast. But it hauled in $33 million in its first 17 days, not bad for a job that took only two nights to shoot.
"Nuts" was a major disappointment for Warner Bros. For a film that plays as well as it does for audiences (it was one of only nine movies rated "A" overall by respondents to Cinemascore's exit poll), the film has not done well at the box office.
After six weeks, "Nuts " had grossed less than $25 million and it is rapidly disappearing from theaters.
"Nuts" raises questions about the continuing appeal of its star Barbra Streisand, or at least of her appeal in a non-singing role.
The jury is still out on several of the Christmas movies.
John Hughes' "Plains, Trains and Automobiles" got off to a fast start in November, but slowed down dramatically through the holidays.
It is clear that Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" is not going to be another "Platoon" and Steven Spielberg's "The Empire of the Sun" is not going to be another "The Color Purple." But both are doing well enough to hold theaters until something better comes along, or until hoped-for Oscar nominations stimulate more interest in them.
The grosses on some of the holiday movies do not provide an accurate forecast of their eventual performances. The family-oriented "Batteries Not Included," "Overboard" and "Cinderella" all enjoyed business upsurges over New Year's, but with kids back in school, they may begin to fade.
Theater owners are going to be moving films around to accommodate the new product being released this month. Two of those films--"Moonstruck" and "Good Morning, Vietnam"--are expected to be huge box-office successes.
"Good Morning, Vietnam," which stars Robin Williams as a manic Army deejay in 1965 Vietnam, is benefiting from trailers attached to prints of "Three Men and a Baby." "Moonstruck" is benefiting from a consensus of rave reviews.
Among other films going wider in coming weeks are Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" and "Hope and Glory," two Columbia films expected to benefit from Oscar nominations.
As for the surprise success of "Throw Momma From the Train," you have to credit two things--the devilishly titillating marketing campaign and director/star Danny DeVito's ability to fine-tune a film that most exhibitors were cool to after seeing a rough cut several months ago.
One thing's certain: If there were awards for best trailers, "Throw Momma's" would win it hands-down. The trailer, showing DeVito trying to talk Billy Crystal into tossing his hellishly ugly mother (Anne Ramsey) from a train, played for weeks prior to its Dec. 11 opening and was better than most of the films it preceded.
Charles Glenn, head of Orion's marketing department, also credits a series of TV and radio spots narrated by the husky-voiced Ramsey. In any event, Glenn said, Orion was not surprised at "Throw Momma's" appeal and the lesson in all this is that exhibitors shouldn't be so quick to prejudge and reporters shouldn't pay so much attention to exhibitors.
Here are the box-office standings of the 13 films put into wide national release from Thanksgiving to Christmas (days in release in parentheses):
1. "Three Men and a Baby," $83.9 million (40).
2. "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," $39.1 million (40).
3. "Throw Momma From the Train," $37.7 million (24).
4. "Raw," $33.4 million (17).
5. "Cinderella," $30.4 million (45).
6. "Nuts," $24.9 million (45).
7. "Wall Street," $22.5 million (24).
8. "Batteries Not Included," $19.5 million (17).
9. "Broadcast News," $16.2 million (10).
10. "Overboard," $13.3 million (19).
11. "Empire of the Sun," $12 million (26).
12. "Leonard Part 6," $4.6 million (17).
13. "Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night," $2.7 million (10).