This was the summer when more people went to see Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze than Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy, when moviegoers finally seemed to weary of car crashes, explosions and automatic weapons.
Hollywood's macho summer ended with an old-fashioned message: America still loves a love story. In a season when nearly all the major movies were big-budget action pictures aimed at young men, the surprise success was a relatively modest ($22-million budget) love story that offered one of the few prominent roles for a woman.
"Ghost," an uplifting tribute to yuppie love starring Moore and Swayze, opened second to "Die Hard 2" and steadily built up word-of-mouth to become the top film of the summer, with $125 million in ticket sales through Labor Day. Paramount Pictures poured hundreds of millions of dollars into hardware movies this summer, but it was "Ghost" that gave the studio a strong edge over much of its competition.
If tickets sales from another love story, "Pretty Woman"--actually a spring release--are factored in, Disney was the top-earning studio over the summer, according to Paul Kagan Associates. Produced for a modest $12 million, this Pygmalion tale--Henry Higgins takes home a hooker--had grossed $169 million through Labor Day, according to the studio. It also returned Richard Gere to stardom and made co-star Julia Roberts one of the most sought-after actresses in the business.
Disney also was helped by the success of "Dick Tracy," Warren Beatty's comic book epic. The No. 4 film of the summer, "Dick Tracy" faced some tough odds given that young people were not familiar with either Beatty or the character. But a massive marketing blitz and generally good reviews pushed ticket sales to $103.7 million.
But overall, moviegoing was off 5% from last year's record summer, according to projections by Paul Kagan Associates. The firm projects that total box-office receipts will top $1.92 billion, compared to $2.4 billion for last summer.
"It probably hurt that there were so many of the same pictures at the same time," said John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations Inc., which compiles box-office figures. "There wasn't the diversity there was in previous years."
The list of the top 10 movies for the summer, as expected, was filled out by action-adventure films. But many of the films failed to meet expectations set by last year's adventure blockbusters: "Batman," "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "Lethal Weapon 2."
The summer's results could challenge the popular notion in Hollywood that big stars plus big budgets guarantee big returns at the box office. Analysts say that none of this summer's major movies will lose money--video, TV and foreign markets will make up for any shortfall at U.S. theaters--but many industry insiders are predicting that it's just a matter of time before a Hollywood studio runs into a high-tech "Heaven's Gate," the 1980 spectacle that nearly destroyed United Artists.
"People are saying the budgets have gotten out of hand," said Elizabeth A. Cameron, research associate at Smith Barney, a New York brokerage firm. "I think the companies are going to scale back . . . There's this perception that you have to spend $60 million for a movie and that's not the case."
Cameron said that business at the box office also was hurt by a slowing economy and rising ticket prices. In addition, she said, the time window between theater and video releases closed dramatically. As a result, she said, with ticket prices reaching $7.50 at some New York and L.A. theaters, young theatergoers are choosing to wait until their favorite movies come out on video, rather than standing in line for a second viewing at theaters. Sales of videos were up substantially this summer, Cameron said.
In the body-count sweepstakes, "Total Recall"--director Paul Verhoeven's complex science-fiction thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger--was the clear winner. With a budget that stretched beyond $60 million, the Carolco production, distributed by Tri-Star, came in second place for the summer with ticket sales of $116.7 million. Given Schwarzenegger's popularity in foreign markets, many analysts expect the film to match that figure overseas.
The other action picture with the summer's biggest budget, 20th Century Fox's "Die Hard 2" (industry estimates put the production costs above $62 million) came in third place with more than $109.7 million in ticket sales. The sequel to "Die Hard," (1988's sleeper summer hit), exceeded the original's ticket sales by more than 35%. But overall this was not a kind summer for sequels.
In recent years, Eddie Murphy's name on a summer movie has guaranteed $100-million-plus in ticket sales. But Paramount's "Another 48 HRS.," a sequel to the buddy-cop picture that originally launched Murphy to stardom, had ticket sales of $79.1 million and was rapped by critics for excessive violence and insufficient plot. Although that ticket-sale figure is large--and slightly exceeds sales on the original--it fell far short of expectations for a film that cost at least $45 million to make.
Other sequels that failed to meet expectations were Universal's "Back to the Future III," ($84.1 million, in contrast to $208 million for the original, one of the 10 top films of all time); Orion's "RoboCop 2," ($44.8 million, compared to $54 million for the original in 1987); and Warner Bros.' "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" ($40.4 million compared to $148 million for the original, one of the top five releases in 1984).
Tom Cruise's ode to stock car racing, "Days of Thunder," was considered by many an earthbound sequel to the 1985 jet fighter hit, "Top Gun" (one critic even charted the plot similarities). The Paramount film cost at least $50 million to make and grossed $80.6 million--a figure that has to be split roughly 50-50 between theater owners and the studio. In contrast, "Top Gun" grossed $177 million.
SUMMER CHAMPS Top 10 Summer Films, With Box Office
1. Ghost: $125.0
2. Total Recall: $116.7
3. Die Hard 2: $109.7
4. Dick Tracy: $103.7
5. Back to the Future III: $84.1
6. Days of Thunder: $80.6
7. Another 48 HRS.: $79.1
8. Bird on a Wire: $70.0
9. Presumed Innocent: $67.4
10. Arachnophobia: $48.4
Notes: Figures in millions. "Pretty Woman" was released in the spring and leads the 1990 box office.
SOURCE: Exhibitor Relations Inc.; Studios.