Shoot-Out at the Box Office : Hollywood’s awash in money; the upcoming movie budgets are off the charts; what does it all mean? It’s action summer!
It’s become a Hollywood tradition to roll out the biggest guns during the summer. This year is no exception--except that the guns are even bigger than usual.
Coming soon to a theater near you: More than half a dozen sequels to monster hits--including “Another 48 HRS.,” “Die Hard 2" and “RoboCop 2.” Plus, some heavy-duty non-sequels--notably, “Dick Tracy,” “Days of Thunder” and “Total Recall.” They’ll all be accompanied by tenacious and expensive marketing efforts aimed at pulling you into theaters.
From now through Labor Day, box-office receipts will account for an estimated 40% of the year’s grosses. So, it is no coincidence that the summer’s heavy-duty titles are mostly action/special effects-oriented, boasting some of the biggest stars in the business--with an aim towards kids, teens and young adults.
At the same time, Hollywood isn’t betting exclusively on the young. Coming off the success of such adult-oriented hits as the Oscar-winning “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Hunt for Red October,” major distributors will respond to adult tastes with titles including Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues,” about a New York trumpet player, and “Presumed Innocent,” the screen adaptation of Scott Turow’s best-selling courtroom thriller.
But the attention, inevitably, focuses on the action films and stars, not to mention dazzling budgets. Consider: The collective cost of the budgets of a dozen pictures, boasting some of the biggest price tags, totals between $350 and $400 million. That figure doesn’t include marketing costs.
20th Century Fox’s “Die Hard 2,” which has had a troubled production, is said to be costing about $60 million. Tri-Star Pictures’ special effects-laden science fiction saga “Total Recall” may run up a higher price tag--perhaps as much, according to some sources, as $70 million. Paramount Pictures’ racing drama, “Days of Thunder,” is said to have been clocked at $50 million--and still racing.
“I keep hearing about all this money being spent, and I’m stunned,” admits a marketing executive at a studio where the top summer film cost less than $40 million. “You ask yourself, ‘How much is too much?’ ”
The answer in today’s Hollywood economy might be: Too much is never enough. Coming off a record year at the box office, the motion picture industry is awash in money.
So, consider (as most of Hollywood is) the possibilities of the big returns on the huge budgets:
* The total domestic box office last year was $5.1 billion. (The domestic take consists of U.S. and Canadian ticket sales.) Of that, $2 billion--about $500,000 more than most industry analysts predicted--came from last summer’s box office receipts. During the startling summer of 1989, five movies passed the magic $100-million mark.
Led by “Batman,” and its record-breaking ticket sales of $251.1 million, the others were: ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” ($197.1 million); “Lethal Weapon II” ($147.2 million); “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” ($130.1 million) and “Ghostbusters II” ($112.4 million).
* Already this year, domestic grosses are in excess of $1.5 billion, compared to nearly $1.4 billion at this same time last year, reports Art Murphy, veteran box office analyst for the trade paper Daily Variety. “In April, alone, box office jumped more than 45% from a year go,” says Murphy.
“The market on the whole has shown the ability to expand,” says Barry London, Paramount Pictures’ motion picture group president in charge of distribution. London cites the $100-million-plus performances of the four spring releases, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” ($109.5 million), “The Hunt for Red October” ($105.4 million), “Pretty Woman” ($100.5 million), and “Driving Miss Daisy” ($100 million). (Released last fall, the Oscar-winning “Driving Miss Daisy” did not open wide until early this year.)
“That’s already an enormous figure for one year,” enthuses London, adding, “so, who knows what the summer could bring?”
Especially considering that the upcoming crop--while seemingly without a dominating film like last summer’s “Batman"--has what various analysts feel are 10 to 12 potential hits. This includes the much talked-about “Dick Tracy,” with Warren Beatty and Madonna. Conjecture about whether the no-nonsense detective can dominate the box office the way “Batman” did has met with some skepticism. Both are taken from the comics, but Tracy--unlike Batman--isn’t as familiar to young people. Disney strategists are currently working to counter that with a big marketing campaign that’s just beginning to roll.
Action films certainly seem to have the highest profile at this point, but there are also a number of comedies, family films and “serious” titles due out. No one is discounting their potential, based on last summer’s surprises in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “Dead Poet’s Society” ($94.5 million) and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” ($27.1 million). “It’s going to be some summer,” predicts John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations, which provides industry news to theater owners.
“I see only cause for joy--and the possibility that this summer’s movies could do as well as last summer,” says Phil Garfinkle, executive vice president of Entertainment Data Inc., which tracks box-office figures.
Murphy didn’t want to make any predictions: “I’m not walking the plank on the summer movies. Last summer’s figures reflected such an abnormally big jump, that you can’t really predict these things--especially since the studios tend to ‘front-load’ the summer.”
Explains Murphy: “All the giant titles are released in the first half of the summer. Remember that a film that opens in June can play three months of seven-day weeks. That’s a lot of money, compared to what a movie released later in the summer can do.” The season’s first shots were fired Friday, with the release of Universal Pictures’ romantic comedy, “Bird on a Wire,” and Orion Pictures’ comedy, “Cadillac Man.”
But the real kick-off comes this Friday--the first day of the Memorial Day weekend--when Universal’s “Back to the Future III” opens at about 2,000 theaters. The only opposition to “Future” is the Apache helicopters/war-on-drugs action picture “Fire Birds,” distributed by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures.
Then, in rapid succession, an army of high-profile, potential blockbusters troop in: “Total Recall,” “Another 48 HRS.,” “Dick Tracy,” “Gremlins II,” “RoboCop 2" and “Days of Thunder.” That’s just in June. Among the titles in July: “Die Hard 2" and “Flight of the Intruder,” a Vietnam action-adventure about Navy fliers.
Because of the high stakes and the fact that summer is such a competitive arena, studios have jockeyed release dates for weeks--usually after assessing their products and sizing up the opposition’s.
Last week, Fox announced that “Die Hard 2" would open on July 4, when there is no major competition, rather than on the previously announced June 22, when it would have squared off against Orion’s “RoboCop 2.”
As recently as May 3, Warner made the surprise decision to go head-to-head with Disney’s “Dick Tracy” and pushed back the release of “Gremlins II: The New Batch,” from May 18 to June 15.
The move was made to send a message to Disney: Warner believes that kids on school break would rather watch the hip (and sometimes malevolent) Gremlins than a nostalgic comic character. (Last year, Disney dared to release “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” the same day as Warner’s “Batman,” and it went on to become the surprise success of the summer.) A Disney studio insider, responding to this year’s “Gremlins” strategy, sent a message back: “They’ll be sorry--real sorry--that they ever made that move.”
And so it goes. “Total Recall,” once scheduled to take on “Dick Tracy,” is now being released June 1--without any major competition, until “Another 48 HRS.” opens on June 8. “48 HRS.,” in turn, was originally scheduled for release June 27. But when it became evident that “Days of Thunder” wouldn’t be done in time to make its previously announced June 8 release, Paramount Pictures’ flip-flopped the two.
Along with plotting release-date strategies, studios have also been plotting marketing campaigns.
A studio executive interviewed for this piece estimates that the summer’s major films are each being launched with marketing campaigns of “at least” $10- to $12-million (that’s above and beyond the budgets and the cost of film prints).
Already shaping up are these maneuvers:
* Say it with billboards. That’s what Fox is doing in 26 cities, where billboards proclaim: “This Summer, Die Harder"--referring to “Die Hard 2.” “You’re not going to be able to turn around without seeing us. If you do, please call me,” says Tom Sherak, president of marketing and distribution. Over at Paramount, they’re touting the billboards for the Tom Cruise picture, “Days of Thunder,” which herald, “Cruise Like Thunder on June 27.” Buses are similarly plastered.
* Magazine cover blitzes. “Total Recall” star Arnold Schwarzenegger graces at least half a dozen--including “GQ,” “Smart,” “Vanity Fair” and “Premiere.” For the latter, he’s photographed underwater (cover copy proclaims the issue is “Worth the Wet!”). Schwarzenegger is also featured in a slew of “inside” stories--including one in Muscle & Fitness.
* Product tie-ins, galore. There’ll be Chevrolet and Exxon promotions for “Days of Thunder.” Kids can partake of the fantasy, too, with Tyco Toys race cars.
The Gremlins will do some pitching for the Quality Inns. One spot, touting the Inn’s family rates, features Brain (the Gremlin who talks), and a passle of cute baby gremlins all tucked side-by-side into their hotel bed for the night.
* Fast food, anyone? There’ll be a “Jetson’s” kid’s meal at Wendy’s. And a McDonald’s “Happy Meal” tied to Walt Disney Pictures’ re-issue of “Jungle Book.”
In perhaps the biggest-ever tie-in between a fast-food enterprise and a movie, McDonald’s and Disney have also teamed for what may be the season’s premiere promotional campaign: the Dick Tracy Crimestopper’s Game--a lottery style contest with “scratch-off” cards that reveal clues to solving crimes and catching bad guys. It kicks off in early June, and will continue through the summer, offering a whopping $40 million in cash and prizes (including food items).
* The MTV/VH-1 video push. Look for Z Z Top performing “Doubleback” in the “Back to the Future III” video, which will also feature scenes from the movie. The Neville Brothers sing the “Bird on a Wire” title song; the Beach Boys perform the title song to Universal’s comedy, “Problem Child”; heavy metallers Babylon A.D. emote to “The Kid Goes Wild,” from Orion’s “RoboCop 2,” and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics performs “Party Town,” in the video for Columbia’s dramatic “Flatliners.” Plus, Prince and Morris Day in videos for Warner’s “Graffiti Bridge,” starring both rockers.
* Glitzy premieres. Monday night’s premiere of “Back to the Future III,” to benefit the Westside Children’s Center, will be attended by the stars and include a Western-style party.
The premiere party for Tri-Star’s “Total Recall” will be held at Griffith Park Observatory.
“Tracy’s” will be held at a theater complex adjoining Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Afterward, VIPs--and 3,000 members of the press junket--will mix it up with the film’s stars.
DICK TRACY’S DILEMMA
Of all the marketing campaigns, none will be as pivotal as the one for Disney’s “Dick Tracy.”
Director/star Beatty has assembled an impressive cast (including Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman hidden behind make-up in supporting roles) and crew (including production designer Richard Sylbert and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, both of whom worked on Beatty’s “Reds”). But if the elements are intriguing, the film also faces hurdles, based on the target audience. Simply put, kids and teen-agers don’t know Tracy or Beatty.
Created in 1931, the Tracy strip was once read by 29 million people in more than 650 newspapers. Today, it appears in just more than 150 papers. As for Beatty--who last bombed in 1987’s “Ishtar"--he hasn’t had a commercial hit since 1978’s “Heaven Can Wait.”
So the question persists: Will Beatty/"Tracy” play to the young people who helped to make other comics-movies, like “Batman,” and the current “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” mega-hits?
“That’s our job from a marketing standpoint,” says Disney Studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who confesses that at this point, his own 7-year-old son “doesn’t really know what ‘Dick Tracy’ is. But,” he stresses, “that will change by the time June 15 comes around.”
Katzenberg declined to reveal how that change would be accomplished. But in the last week or so, ads for the PG-rated “Dick Tracy” have been bombarding TV--especially during kids’ programming.
Disney officials didn’t want to detail their promotional plans for the $25-$30-million “Tracy,” which will be released with the second Roger Rabbit cartoon short, “Rollercoaster Rabbit.” (The first Roger Rabbit cartoon, “Tummy Trouble,” was attached to “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”) But, gradually, information was provided by studio insiders--one of whom estimates that within two weeks of “Tracy’s” release, it will have been supported by $150 million worth of efforts, including promotional activities from the various licensees.
Among the “Tracy” marketing tactics:
* Three “logos,” all in the primary comic strip colors that are used as a motif in the movie. They appeared in succession, beginning at Christmas. The first showed Beatty’s mug in profile, with the warning, “This Year They’re Out to Get Him.” No. 2 had him full face, telling his wrist radio, “I’m on My Way.” In No. 3 he’s shown full figure, blasting away with a machine gun. It reads: “June 15. Everywhere.”
* Magazine covers. Madonna, who plays gangster moll Breathless Mahoney, has racked up Vanity Fair (including sexy photos snapped by Helmut Newton), Cosmopolitan, Harper’s, several issues of Entertainment Weekly and US. The traditionally press-shy Beatty came out of the shadows for Rolling Stone and Premiere, plus his widely seen encounter with Barbara Walters, after the Oscar telecast. The film will be spotlighted in an upcoming segment of ABC’s “20/20" and featured on covers including USA Weekend and Memories magazine. “Tracy” also got half the covers of the “summer blockbuster” June issue of the authoritative genre magazine, Cinefantastique, which chose “RoboCop 2" as the other film worthy of cover status.
* Three--count ‘em--record albums. Madonna’s “I’m Breathless,” includes the three Stephen Sondheim songs (including, “I Always Get My Man”) that she warbles on screen. (Her current tour includes a “Dick Tracy” homage.)
Plus an album featuring orchestral score by Danny Elfman (“Batman”) and an album of some of the songs in the film (other than Breathless’ numbers), as performed by artists ranging from k.d. lang to Mel Torme.
* A specially made syndicated TV special, the 30-minute “Dick Tracy, Behind the Badge, Behind the Scenes,” expected to air a week before the film opens.
* An MTV promotion to feature specially made “Tracy” promos and contests offering prizes of Dick Tracy’s sedan, Breathless’ roadster convertible and a chance to attend the film’s premiere.
* A little help from the theme parks. Disneyland’s hip music hang-out, Videopolis, will feature a 20-minute live musical stage show (“with original script”), focusing on “Tracy.” Likewise the Hollywood stage of the Disney/MGM Studio Tour in Florida.
A Disney representative says with characteristic marketing understatement: “You’re not going to be able to go very far in any direction and not run into Dick Tracy.”
THE OTHER BIG NON-SEQUELS
Arnold Schwarzenegger on Mars. “Top Gun” on wheels. High-concepts are among the reasons for the high-profiles of the summer’s other significant non-sequels.
Take the $10-million-a-movie muscleman/actor Schwarzenegger and team him with original “RoboCop” director Paul Verhoeven. Throw in a Martian science-fiction scenario involving memory implantation, a budget that reportedly swells to $70 million, and what do you get?
Since this package was first announced, “Total Recall” has been generating interest among science-fiction and fantasy fans--rabid moviegoers--and also throughout the industry.
Based on Philip K. Dick’s short story, “I Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” the film’s history spans more than 15 years. It was Schwarzenegger’s clout that finally got the project made--and it is Schwarzenegger who is the focus of the film’s promotion.
“Days of Thunder” reteams Tom Cruise with his “Top Gun” superstar producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. (With ticket sales of $171.6 million, “Top Gun” was the top-grossing film of 1986.) Cruise came up with the story idea, which has him as an ambitious young race driver on the fast track to self-discovery and, presumably, the top prize on the NASCAR racing circuit.
Of course, there are those films that can rely largely on built-in promotional factors: namely, the sequels.
This summer’s biggies--"Gremlins II: The New Batch,” “Another 48 HRS.,” “RoboCop 2,” and “Die Hard 2"--are especially formidable because they are follow-ups to films that became huge hits on videocassette and cable after their theatrical success. They’ll all be released within a single month.
(Last summer, “Lethal Weapon II” benefitted mightily from the videocassette and cable afterlife of “I,” which grossed $65 million at theaters.)
In the case of 1982’s “48 HRS.,” it even established a formula. As Paramount’s Barry London notes, the buddy-cop film was one of the decade’s most imitated movies. It also stands as what is arguably Eddie Murphy’s best movie.
The original “Gremlins"--which earned $148 million in 1984--also let loose a trend: a spate of creature movies. To promote the sequel, Warner’s has been out in force at the science fiction/comics fans conventions. (Other studios with genre pictures have been doing the same, the better to capture the repeat-audience crowd.) Among the Warner selling tactics: a behind-the-scenes special--which goes awry when the Gremlins take over. (Director Joe Dante’s shown pulling out his hair.)
As for the original “Die Hard,” released in 1988, when Bruce Willis’ popularity had subsided, the film nonetheless won over non-Willis fans--and critics--to slowly become a hit, with $81 million in ticket sales.
Ironically, the Fox sequel has had a lengthy and reportedly costly and troubled production--not unlike the “The Abyss,” the studio’s 1989 summer underwater thriller. As a result of that film’s production woes, the $60-million project wasn’t released until August, when peak movie-going had subsided. It earned only so-so reviews and ticket sales of $54.8 million.
“RoboCop” had receipts of $53 million in 1987--and let loose one of the genre’s most identifiable “stars,” a half-robot/half-man.
As befits a star, RoboCop has lately taken up causes. According to David Forbes, Orion president of domestic distribution, the man of metal is going to become involved in anti-drug efforts. And he appears in an anti-smoking spot (a scene cut right from the film, in which he blasts a cigarette out of a smoker’s mouth), which is running in 7,000 theaters, as well as on several airlines.
True to his image, RoboCop also acted as a peacekeeper at last week’s National Wrestling Alliance’s pay-per-view telecast, which pitted wrestling villains like Sid Vicious, Ole and Arn Anderson against heroic wrestler, Sting.
Still other titles that should be able to draw from moviegoers who like a sense of deja vu : “Young Guns II” and “Exorcist III: 1990" (both from Fox), and “The Two Jakes,” Paramount’s long-awaited sequel to 1974’s complex murder mystery/character study, “Chinatown.”
A (financial) footnote to summer box office: A summer blockbuster’s ticket sales are only the beginning.
According to Art Murphy, a film’s U.S. and Canadian film rentals--that is, the portion of the box office gross that is returned to the distributors--represent only 20% of what a title will ultimately earn.
“The universe keeps expanding,” says Murphy, pointing to growing markets for movies, “like foreign TV, which has suddenly become a huge new marketplace.”
It takes approximately five to seven years for each picture to travel through the expanded marketplace universe--which includes theatrical, pay-per-view, video, cable, pay TV, network TV, syndicated TV and the burgeoning foreign markets.
Which means that long after Hollywood’s summer has come to an end, it will still be summer somewhere else.
BLOCKBUSTERS: A SAMPLING OF SOME OF THE SUMMER’S BIGGEST BUDGET MOVIES
The dozen movies pictured are accompanied by estimated budgets ranges, studio, release date and selling points. Total Recall, $60-70 million
(Tri-Star Pictures) Opens June 1. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Mars, directed by original “RoboCop” director Paul Verhoeven.
Flight of the Intruder, $35 million
(Paramount Pictures) Opens July 13. A Vietnam war movie from the producers of the current hit “The Hunt for Red October.”
Back to the Future III, $40 million
(Universal Pictures) Opens Friday. Parts “I” and “II” had ticket sales of $313 million.
The Two Jakes, $25 million
(Paramount Pictures) Opens Aug. 10. It’s “Chinatown 2,” finally, with Jack Nicholson back starring and directing.
Dick Tracy, $30 million
(Walt Disney Pictures) Opens June 15. Who can resist Madonna and Warren Beatty? Disney’s massive marketing campaign will try to make sure nobody.
Gremlins II, $32 million
(Warner Bros.) Opens June 15. Your basic sequel to the original hit, “Gremlins.”
Days of Thunder, $50 million-plus
(Paramount Pictures) Opens June 27. “Top Gun” on wheels. Racing cars, Tom Cruise and producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.
Presumed Innocent, $20 million (Warner Bros.) Opens July 27. A movie for the
grown-ups who loved Scott Turow’s best seller.
Ducktales The Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, $20 million (Walt Disney Pictures) Opens
Aug. 3. The TV series is a mega-hit among small fry.
Another 48 HRS., $45 million
(Paramount Pictures) Opens June 8. Another dead-bang sequel as Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte are back together.
Die Hard II, $60 million-plus
(20th Century Fox) Opens July 4. The sequel to the film that grossed $81 million.
RoboCop 2, $25 million
(Orion Pictures) Opens June 22. The original “RoboCop” is a runaway hit on cable/video.
BUDGET VS BOX OFFICE: LAST SUMMER’S STORIES
(Warner Bros.) Opened: June 23
Budget: $57 million
Ticket sales: $251.1 million
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
(Paramount Pictures) Opened: May 24
Budget: $32 million
Ticket sales: $197.1 million
Lethal Weapon II
(Warner Bros.) Opened: July 7
Budget: $30 million
Ticket sales: $147.2 million
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
(Walt Disney Pictures) Opened: June 23
Budget: $15 million
Ticket sales: $130.1 million
(Columbia Pictures) Opened: June 16
Budget: $35 million
Ticket sales: $112.4 million
(Universal Pictures) Opened: Aug. 2
Budget: $20 million
Ticket sales: $98.8 million
Dead Poet’s Society
(Touchstone Pictures) Opened: June 2
Budget: $15 million
Ticket sales: $94.5 million
When Harry Met Sally . . .
(Columbia Pictures) Opened: July 14
Budget: $14-15 million
Ticket sales: $92.2 million
Turner & Hooch
(Touchstone Pictures) Opened: July 28
Budget: $13 million
Ticket sales: $70.4 million
(Universal Pictures) Opened: Aug. 16
Budget: $18 million
Ticket sales: $66.4 million
(20th Century Fox) Opened: Aug. 9
Budget: $60 million
Ticket sales: $54.8 million
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
(Paramount Pictures) Opened: June 9
Budget: $32 million
Ticket sales: $52.2 million