Nice Guys Finish First : 'Roger Rabbit' Hops to Box-Office Top; 'Coming to America' Hits 2nd

Times Staff Writer

Maybe George Bush didn't see it coming: Maybe we're already a kinder, gentler nation. During 1988, cute was in, macho out at theaters throughout the country. Disney drew an animated rabbit so silly and impossibly adorable that he hopped his way into the heart of the screen's crustiest detective, and made "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" the No. 1 film of the year.

Fox offered audiences a kid who gets his wish to become a grownup, and then decides there's no place like home. "Big" became the surprise hit of the summer and elevated Tom Hanks to the status of a major star.

In 1987, Eddie Murphy reigned at the box office with a big smile and lots of car crashes; "Beverly Hills Cop II" was one of the top-grossing films of the year. In 1988, Eddie Murphy reigned at the box office with a big smile and lots of romance; "Coming to America" was the second highest-grossing release of the year.

The ghosts in the sleeper spring hit "Beetlejuice" were so soft-hearted they didn't know how to frighten away the inhabitants of their own house. Even child-killer Freddy Krueger's horror was tamer, and wittier, in his fourth installment of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," which dominated the early fall box office.

The year started with a spillover of cute from 1987. Disney/Touchstone's "Three Men and a Baby," released in late 1987, continued to draw crowds well into 1988. All told, the film--starring Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg, Ted Danson, and, yes, a baby--has grossed nearly $168 million.

The year ended with top gun Tom Cruise leaving his F-14 on the ground to drive his autistic brother, the "Rain Man," across the country. Together, Cruise and co-star Dustin Hoffman have overtaken a host of holiday comedies; "Rain Man" was the top-grossing film in the nation over New Year's weekend.

This year, Hollywood studios will continue to release films short on artillery and long on comedy and romance. The sequel to "Lethal Weapon" will be lighter and more comedic than originally conceived, and serious comic-book fans fear that even "Batman" will offer too many laughs.

According to John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations, the 10 highest grossing releases of 1988, through New Year's weekend, were:

1. "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" ($150 million).

2. "Coming to America" ($128 million).

3. "Big" ($112 million).

4. " 'Crocodile' Dundee II" ($109 million).

5. "Die Hard" ($80 million).

6. "Cocktail" ($77 million).

7. "Beetlejuice" ($73 million).

8. "A Fish Called Wanda" ($60 million)

9. "Willow" ($56 million).

10. "Twins" ($56 million).

Following close behind were "Scrooged" ($55 million), "Rambo III" ($54 million), "Bull Durham" ($50 million), "Nightmare on Elm Street 4" ($49 million) and "Colors" ($46 million).

Three films that actually opened in 1987 were among the top-grossing pictures during the early part of 1988: "Good Morning, Vietnam" ($123 million in 1988 alone, according to Daily Variety); "Three Men and a Baby" ($84 million in 1988), and "Moonstruck" ($79 million in 1988).

While the biggest openings of 1987 and 1988 had much in common, there was a notable drop in the popularity of raw action films last year. Total box-office receipts on action-adventure films were down 19% over the previous year, with 26 films grossing a total of $283 million, according to figures compiled by Entertainment Data Inc., which provides box-office information to Hollywood studios.

"There was some disappointment in the action-adventure category," said Mara M. Balsbaugh, an entertainment industry analyst with the investment firm Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. "Very few of these worked, with the limited exception of 'Die Hard.' "

Prominent among the hit films of 1987 were "Beverly Hills Cop II," "Lethal Weapon," "Predator" and "RoboCop." The only major 1988 hit emitting as much gun powder as dialogue was "Die Hard," starring Bruce Willis, which grossed nearly $80 million and ranked fifth among the year's releases.

"Rambo III" was the 12th highest-grossing picture of the year, but measured against expectations ("Rambo II" grossed nearly three times as much) and its production costs (more than $60 million), "Rambo III" proved a major drop-off in interest for Sylvester Stallone's super vet.

Tri-Star's "Red Heat," pairing Arnold Schwarzenegger with James Belushi, and Paramount's "The Presidio," with Sean Connery and Mark Harmon, both fizzled at the summer box office, as did a host of other action pictures with less recognizable stars. Universal's "Midnight Run," a buddy cops-and-bad-guys movie starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, did $37 million. Not bad, but nothing to write home to boss Lew Wasserman about.

Women over 40 fared well in this kinder, gentler environment. Although released in 1987 for Academy Award consideration, Cher's "Moonstruck," an MGM/UA release, continued to draw crowds well into 1988, and grossed $80 million before hitting the video store shelves, where it was equally popular.

Susan Sarandon received critical acclaim--not to mention audible sighs from men in the audience--for her portrayal of the sexy baseball queen in "Bull Durham." That summer release from Orion ranked 13th for the year. And Barbara Hershey received plenty of attention for her performances in "A World Apart," "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "Beaches," the current Disney/Touchstone release in which she co-stars with Bette Midler.

Every year has its sleepers, films that no one in Hollywood pays much attention to--until they become overnight sensations. In the fall of 1987, Paramount's "Fatal Attraction," the violent story of a single woman's obsessive love for a married man, took the country by storm. Still a subject as touchy as religion or politics at the dinner table, "Fatal Attraction" grossed nearly $157 million at the box office.

This year's sleepers were of a gentler nature. Warner's "Beetlejuice" which ranked seventh among the year's films, was a warm comedy, while MGM/UA's "A Fish Called Wanda," ranking eighth, offered plenty of barbed wit.

Despite the public's new-found niceness, horror thrived.

According to Entertainment Data, 25 horror films grossing a total of $232 million were released in 1988, a 4% increase over 1987 even though 26 horror films were released that year. Typically, horror films are cheap to make, and the advertising and distribution of them is targeted at a narrow audience of teens. In other words, it doesn't take much of a box-office performance to turn a profit--and thereby qualify as a success.

The fourth installment of New Line Cinema's "Nightmare on Elm Street," which cost $6.5 million to make, led all '88 horror films with $49 million in grosses. Next came MGM/UA's "Child Play" (it cost $14 million and grossed $29 million), Universal's "The Serpent and the Rainbow" (it cost $8 million and grossed nearly $20 million), and Paramount's "Friday the 13th: Part 7" (it cost $4.5 million and grossed $19.2 million.)

There was no shortage of sequels during 1988--25 of them were released, grossing $525 million, according to Entertainment Data. In 1987, 20 were released.

But for the most part, moviegoers seemed to prefer original fare. While they sent " 'Crocodile' Dundee 2" over the $100-million mark, they managed to ignore most of the others. Among the disappointing sequels of 1988 were Warner's "Caddyshack 2," Tri-Star's "Iron Eagle 2," Disney/Touchstone's "Return to Snowy River," Warner's "Arthur 2 on the Rocks," MGM/UA's "Poltergeist 3" and Paramount's "Big Top Pee-Wee."

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