Summer Box Office Heats Up : Despite Higher Ticket Prices, Biggest-Grossing Season Since ‘84 Seen

Times Staff Writer

‘Tis the season of the $100-million movie gate. Not since the summer of 1984--when audiences queued up around city blocks to see “Ghostbusters” and sequels to “Star Trek” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark"--have so many films qualified as box office hits.

No film soared near the $200-million mark, as “Ghostbusters” did in 1984. But three movies have grossed more than $100 million at the box office-- Disney/Touchstone’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” and two Paramount Pictures releases, “Coming to America” and “ ‘Crocodile’ Dundee II.” A fourth, 20th Century Fox’s “Big,” should break through the $100-million barrier soon.

Four other films have generated more than $50 million in ticket sales so far. And two of those-- Fox’s “Die Hard” and Disney/Touchstone’s “Cocktail"--were mid-summer releases that are expected to continue their momentum at the box office as fall approaches. The other two are MGM/UA’S “Willow,” with $54.2 million, and Tri-Star’s “Rambo III,” with $53.6 million so far.

“This was one of the best summers I can remember, and it was made better by the variety of good films out there,” said Paul Roth, president of Roth Enterprises Inc., which operates more than 50 theaters in Washington, D.C., the Carolinas and Pennsylvania.

Said Greg Rutkowski, vice president of West Coast operations for AMC Entertainment, the nation’s third largest theater owner: “The studios have stepped forward and made good films available in sufficient numbers to keep our theaters booked all summer.”


Box office receipts, at $1.3 billion so far, are up nearly 10% over last summer, according to Phil Garfinkle, senior vice president of Entertainment Data Inc. A little more than half of that increase is attributable to higher ticket prices, according to data compiled by the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

Actual ticket purchases were up roughly 5% over last summer.

CinemaScore, a research firm that polls audiences as they leave theaters on opening nights, found that this summer’s fare was heartily received by moviegoers.

“The last time the ratings were this good was in 1984,” said CinemaScore President Edward Mintz.

Exhibitors and research firms said studios this summer displayed a willingness to cater to the expanding audience of adult filmgoers as well as the lucrative teen market.

“There was a broader range of film,” said Roth.

Among the surprise adult hits of the summer were two quirky, sexy, R-rated comedies--Orion’s “Bull Durham,” which has grossed more than $46 million, and MGM/UA’s “A Fish Called Wanda,” whose box office receipts have topped $30 million.

By all accounts, this was an intensely competitive summer, not only because more than 40 major films were released, but also because so many of them were so popular.

“The grosses were spread around much more than in recent years,” said John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations Co.

Last summer, for example, Paramount’s “Beverly Hills Cop II” dominated the market, with more than $150 million in ticket sales. The summer’s other hits trailed far behind, with grosses in the $50 million-$80 million range.

“Theaters playing ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ may have had a wonderful summer, but for those that weren’t it could have been a fair-to-poor summer,” said Roth.

Among the big winners in this summer’s competition are Paramount, Disney, Fox and Eddie Murphy. The losers include Warner Bros., Universal Pictures, and nearly everyone else who made a sequel.

As the final summer weekend approaches, Paramount and Disney are running neck and neck for the No. 1 place in market position.

Disney burst onto the summer scene with one new face--the animated Roger Rabbit--as well as a couple of more familiar ones, like “Bambi” and young heartthrob Tom Cruise, star of “Cocktail.”

For the year to date, Disney has undercut Paramount’s traditional reign as No. 1 at the box office. According to Entertainment Data, the Disney distribution arm called Buena Vista held a 23% market share from Jan. 1 through Aug. 21, as compared to Paramount’s 15.6% market share.

But with “Coming to America,” which has grossed $114.2 million, Paramount demonstrated once again that it has claim on the biggest financial asset in Hollywood today--Eddie Murphy.

“Murphy is the only star that is a slam-dunk at the box office,” said one theater owner.

In addition, Paramount was the only studio of the summer to turn a sequel into a blockbuster hit--" 'Crocodile’ Dundee II.” Through last weekend, the Australian adventure-comedy brought in more than $106.5 million.

“Rambo III” grossed more than $53 million domestically and drew enthusiastic crowds overseas, but theater owners said they were disappointed by the Tri-Star release.

“You’ve got to believe that this Rambo proved Sylvester Stallone is not bulletproof,” said one exhibitor. The second “Rambo” film grossed $144.6 million during its first summer of release in 1985.

Other sequels with less than stellar results included Tri-Star’s “Short Circuit II,” MGM/UA’s “Poltergeist III,” Universal’s “Phantasm II,” and two Warner releases, “Arthur 2 on the Rocks,” and “Caddyshack II.”

Fox’s performance was one of the big surprises of the summer, exhibitors said.

No one expected another boy-trapped-in-a-man’s-body film to lure much of an audience. But “Big,” starring Tom Hanks, turned into one of the summer’s charmers.

There were similar doubts about “Die Hard,” in which Bruce Willis single-handedly destroys a Century City office building in his quest to drive out a band of international terrorists.

But buoyed by the box office success of both films--combined with the late summer release of its Brat Pack Western, “Young Guns"--Fox managed to double its market share from last summer and move into third place.

In contrast, Warner Bros.--despite being the summer’s largest source of films--watched its market share drop substantially from last year. Warner ranked a distant fourth among the studios, with a 9.5% market share so far, according to Entertainment Data. Universal also lost market share from last summer.

With the exception of New Line Cinema, which released another popular “Nightmare on Elm Street” two weeks ago, independent studios did not make a showing in the summer competition.

Many of those companies, fighting for their financial lives, made a strategic decision to stay out of the intensely competitive summer market.

“The independents are beginning to recognize that it’s in their interest to stay out of the summer competition unless they have a franchise like “Nightmare,” said Martin A. Grove, business editor for the Hollywood Reporter.

The Hot Summer Films 1. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Touchstone) $124.6 million 2. Coming to America (Paramount) 114.2 million 3. ‘Crocodile’ Dundee II (Paramount) 106.5 million 4. Big (Fox) 94.6 million 5.* Willow (MGM) 54.2 million Rambo III (Tri-Star) 53.6 million Die Hard (Fox) 52.0 million Cocktail (Touchstone) 51.4 million * Fifth place will be decided by moviegoers this weekend. Source: Exhibitor Relations Co., 1988 summer grosses.

SUMMER BOX-OFFICE MARKET SHARE 1988: From May 20-August 28 Total Gross: $1.3 Billion Paramount. . . . . . . .21.31% Disney / Touchstone. . .21.09% Fox. . . . . . . . . . .14.48% Warner . . . . . . . . . 9.46% Tri-Star. . . . . . . . .8.87% MGM/UA. . . . . . . . . .8.68% Universal. . . . . . . . 6.81% Orion. . . . . . . . . . 6.24% Others. . . . . . . . . .3.06% Source: Entertainment Data Inc. Hot Summer Films, ’87-82 1987 1. Beverly Hills Cop II (Paramount) $150.9 million 2. The Untouchables (Paramount) 73.6 million 3. The Witches of Eastwick (Warner) 61.1 million 4. Predator (Fox) 54.7 million 5. Dragnet (Universal) 54.6 million 1986 1. Top Gun (Paramount) $131.4 million 2. Karate Kid II (Columbia) 98.9 million 3. Back to School (Orion) 80.3 million 4. Aliens (Fox) 66.4 million 5. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Paramount) 60.8 million 1985 1. Rambo: First Blood Part II (Tri-Star) $144.6 million 2. Back to the Future (Universal) 123.7 million 3. Cocoon (Fox) 67.4 million 4. The Goonies (Warner) 61.0 million 5. A View to a Kill (MGM/UA) 49.7 million 1984 1. Ghostbusters (Columbia) $181.7 million 2. Indiana Jones and the Temple 165.2 million of Doom (Paramount) 3. Gremlins (Warner) 133.7 million 4. Star Trek III (Paramount) 71.3 million 5. The Karate Kid (Columbia) 65.8 million 1983 1. The Return of the Jedi (Fox) $228.8 million 2. Trading Places (Paramount) 78.6 million 3. WarGames (MGM/UA) 64.6 million 4. Octopussy (MGM/UA) 60.0 million 5. Jaws 3-D (Universal) 41.8 million 1982 1. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Universal) $231.0 million 2. Rocky III (MGM/UA) 109.3 million 3. Star Trek II (Paramount) 74.5 million 4. Poltergeist (MGM/UA) 64.6 million 5. Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Universal) 57.7 million Source: Baseline