MOVIES : When Hollywood Feels the Heat : Studios set their summer strategies; now they sweat it out

In Hollywood, it's finger-crossing time.

The hope?

That your movie doesn't crash or get lost in the summertime crush of movies. And that you get a healthy crack at the biggest grosses of the year, during the season that generates the biggest audiences--as much as 40% of the year's business.

The risks?

About $2.5 billion invested in producing and releasing about 50 major studio movies, plus another 30 or so smaller films, to theaters between now and Labor Day weekend.

Not to mention the future, if you're a writer, director, star and/or executive. So who's got what at stake this summer?

Tom Cruise--The next $12-Million Man?: Arnold Schwarzenegger reportedly earned well over $12 million for starring in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," but the box-office results show he was worth the investment. Cruise was reportedly paid as much as $12.5 million to play an Irish working-class immigrant to America in "Far and Away," which opened Friday. Will the star of the sexy "Top Gun" and "Cocktail" and contemporary dramas like "Rain Man" and "Born on the Fourth of July" draw mass audiences to see 19th-Century Ireland and frontier America?

Most observers will simply go with Cruise, based on his track record. Sure, there may be major competition opening weekend, and, yes, the $60-million Ron Howard and Brian Grazer production is costly. But insiders predict the movie will do at least as well as the Howard-Grazer "Backdraft" did last summer ($78 million).

Joe Roth: The 20 Century Fox Film Corp. chairman scored with a sequel to "Die Hard" in 1990 and he's got "Home Alone 2" in the pipeline. Question this summer is, will the sequel to another Fox franchise, "Alien 3," released on Friday, pack in the audiences? When "Alien 3" was moved to this weekend from its originally scheduled autumn 1991 opening, word was that the studio was worried. Among the risks: a mushrooming budget, questions about how audiences might react to the death of a key character early on in the script, a downbeat ending and the head-shaven star Sigourney Weaver. Some theater operators who saw "Alien 3" a week ago believe "it's a two-week movie," based on their soft reactions to the storyline. Translation: Business will drop sharply after two weeks. But the movie trailer, considered one of the best this year, has audiences buzzing.

The Katzenberg strategy: Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg meant what he wrote in the cost-cutting memo heard 'round the world, and now "lower budget" is the password on Dopey Drive. But will it work?

The just-opened "Encino Man" is a teen-oriented slapstick about a prehistoric man who wakes up from a deep freeze and is indoctrinated into a chillin' rock 'n' roll world by MTV's Pauly Shore. He's also going to find himself face to face with Tom Cruise and the Alien.

But hey, Disney's only got $7 million in production costs riding on this one. The studio can afford to take in what's left of the box office after the bigger films take their share. That's a far cry from Disney's position last year, when it took a bath on the $30-something-million "The Rocketeer."

On Friday, Disney's Touchstone division follows "Encino Man" with another modestly budgeted entry, "Sister Act," starring Whoopi Goldberg.

But just in case big is better, Disney's got that one covered too. In July, Disney's Touchstone division serves up the family-comedy sequel, "Honey, I Blew Up the Kid," in which a kid accidentally becomes a giant. (Last time, the kids were shrunk.) The film includes giant-size special-effects costs, pushing the film's budget to a reported $40 million, much higher than Katzenberg probably ever had in mind.

The Whoopi habit: In "Sister Act," Goldberg plays a singing nun. Whoopi as a nun? "Sure, seeing her in so sweet a role is what's so funny," said one exhibitor. But is the family-rated performance too sweet for fans of Goldberg's irreverent humor?

It's the movies, Mr. Tartikoff: Paramount Pictures, on the other hand, has what some believe is $65 million riding on "Patriot Games," possibly the summer's costliest gamble, which could make Paramount Chairman Brandon Tartikoff stick to his guns in pledging no-frills movies, courtesy of his network TV background. "Games," an espionage thriller, is the second Tom Clancy novel adapted for the movies, after "The Hunt for Red October." Only a week ago, filmmakers were said to be frantic about finishing in time for the opening, since the ending was re-shot only weeks earlier. But after successful screenings last week, nerves were under control.

If it's Friday, must it be Goldie?: Moviegoers might be forgiven if they start wondering how many times Goldie Hawn can pop up on screen in one summer. (Answer: Three.) Audiences were hardly flocking to her current movie, the mother/son drama "CrissCross," released earlier this month by MGM/Pathe. But in late June, she opens in Universal's "Housesitter," with co-star Steve Martin. Then, a month later on July 31, Universal releases "Death Becomes Her," in which Hawn stars with Bruce Willis and Meryl Streep.

Tom Pollock: Universal Pictures had planned an early May release for Hawn's comedy, "Housesitter." And all indications, according to industry buzz and audience surveys, is this one's a winner. But is it "counterprogramming" to schedule a lightweight comedy against the higher-profile "Lethal Weapon 3," "Alien 3," "Patriot Games" and Universal's own "Far and Away"? Or is it risky business?

Tom Pollock, chairman of the MCA (Universal) motion picture division, apparently thinks not. According to one report, Pollock held off a barrage of Creative Artists Agency agents, publicists and others who pleaded with him to skip a June release in favor of July, when the market might be more open. But that would push it too close to Hawn's other movie, "Death Becomes Her."

So the June 12 opening of "Housesitter" may be watched as an indication of how a lightweight comedy plays against heavyweight features. A test of the "counterprogramming" theory to be sure.

"Death Becomes Her": Any movie with death in the title is a risk in itself, say exhibitors, even if it is a black comedy. Witness last summer's ill-fated "Dying Young" with no less than America's No. 1 female star of that year, Julia Roberts.

It's an even riskier business when you don't have a star of the year in your cast. Questions: Can Universal recoup "Death Becomes Her's" estimated $40-million budget--which includes three big stars' three big salaries? Will Meryl Streep find a much-needed hit? Will Bruce Willis find a much-needed hit?

Back-to-back blockbusters?: That's exactly the hope of Warner Bros. production president Bruce Berman as he explained the studio's scheduled opening of "Lethal Weapon 3" and "Batman Returns" within a month of each other. "Lethal Weapon 3" is the successor to the popular 1987 and 1989 hits. "Batman Returns," with it's $50-million to $55-million budget, comes to theaters with major expectations, based on its predecessor's huge $250-million domestic box office (and $150 million more in international markets) in 1989. "We went with 'Batman' on June 21, because the first one opened around that date. We wanted to be very close to the date when kids were out of school," Berman said. "We absolutely don't feel the two movies will hurt each other. We feel there will be a demand in the market place to see both."

Risk avoidance: "This year everyone has avoided 'Batman,' " said Daily Variety box-office analyst Art D. Murphy. "It's perceived as a monster, and no one wants to compete against it."

In fact, no major film but "Batman Returns" is scheduled to open June 19.

However, Murphy noted that when the original "Batman" opened in 1989, it didn't destroy Disney's "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," which went on to become a hit. "The marketplace in the summer expands . . . and when that happens there can be enough business for many movies."

But with great expectations come inevitable traps. "Batman Returns" doesn't have Jack Nicholson as the Joker or the novelty of the first. Will it become this summer's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day"--the movie that raced to $204 million in domestic grosses?

Can do, say most of the pros in the business. "Even if it only grosses $150 million," said analyst Murphy, "that ain't bad."

Eddie Murphy: He hasn't been seen on the big screen since 1990's "Another 48 HRS."--nearly two years and a lifetime in Hollywood. But Murphy returns July 1 with Paramount's "Boomerang," a film that gives him his first romantic role. Will audiences buy him as a suave ladies' man instead of a smart-aleck Beverly Hills cop?

Murphy does bring box-office cachet, but that comes with a price tag; some rumors say he received $12 million for this role.

Conventional thinking is that when you have a star, like Murphy, in a movie, it's natural to assume the best. But that thinking can boomerang, as it did last summer with "Dying Young," which banked on the anticipated box-office lure of "Pretty Woman's" Julia Roberts. That film opened to results that can only be charitably called "modest" for a major studio release.

Another obstacle: Murphy's "Boomerang" doesn't have the long, lucrative July 4 weekend to itself. Instead, he goes up against --of all people--Madonna, in Columbia Pictures' release of director Penny Marshall's "A League of Their Own."

Mike Medavoy: Last year at this time, the view from TriStar Chairman Mike Medavoy's corner office at Sony Studios was rosy and bright. TriStar was distributing "Terminator 2," which had been produced by Carolco Pictures, and Steven Spielberg was shooting "Hook" on some of the most elaborate sets ever built in Hollywood.

This summer, TriStar is risking a laid-back approach. The studio has only two much smaller films set for release--the action-packed "Universal Soldier" and "Wind." Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are featured in "Universal Soldier," another Carolco project. And TriStar hopes the sailing-themed "Wind," with Matthew Modine and Jennifer Grey, catches some lingering wind from the interest in the recent America's Cup races in San Diego.

But neither film opens until mid-July. It's almost as if TriStar is conceding the first half of the summer to Warner Bros. "I could say, where has everyone else been for the last six weeks while we've had 'Basic Instinct' in first place?" Medavoy said in response to a question. "We're working on future movies"--among them, "Mr. Jones" with Richard Gere, Lena Olin and Anne Bancroft, and the Charlie Chaplin biopic, "Charlie," with Robert Downey.

Mark Canton's turn: Last July, when Columbia was headed by Frank Price, the studio offered what turned out to be the surprise of the summer--the African-American urban drama "Boyz N the Hood," from newcomer director John Singleton.

This July, the studio's current chief, Mark Canton, has to live with the movies launched during the Price years, and take the eventual heat or glory as the case may be. (If he were back in his post as Warner production president, he could be basking in the glow of "Lethal Weapon 3.")

Like its sister studio, TriStar, Columbia is avoiding the early summer, until it opens "A League of their Own" July 1. Columbia's biggest risk this summer is the $40 million reportedly riding on Marshall's movie about an all-female baseball team, starring Tom Hanks as the coach and Geena Davis and Madonna as team members.

On July 15, almost exactly a year after "Boyz," Columbia has what just may be the antithesis of the Singleton drama. In "Mo' Money," starring Damon Wayans and brother Marlon (from TV's "In Living Color"), there's little inner-city anger. This plot explores how far Damon Wayans can take a credit-card scam to secure more money.

Among buyers for theater chains there is some talk in the business about how much currency some of the "Living Color" stereotypical characters will have on the big screen. Before "Wayne's World," also based on TV characters, hit big at theaters, doubts were greater. The current, heavy advertising campaign also has softened skepticism.

Word is high on Columbia's "Single White Female," which features the teaming of Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh, but neither woman has a name that spells box office.

As one wag put it: If the summer mix doesn't work, Canton might remind the powers at Columbia's parent, Sony, just who was in charge when they were originally planned. If they work, he might remind Sony who is in charge. According to the studio, the first project he actually approved won't be seen until autumn: Martin Scorsese's "Age of Innocence."

Luke Perry may sell magazines, but can he sell tickets?: At the end of July, 20th Century Fox will learn the answer when the comedy-horror film "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" opens. "Beverly Hills, 90210" teen heartthrob Perry stars in this story about a girl who realizes she's a vampire. The cast also includes Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer and Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman). No one's betting against a movie that sounds like it evolved from "Valley Girl" and has major teen appeal. Besides, at a reported $9 million, how much does Fox have to lose? Perry does have to battle the age-old jinx against TV stars making it on the big screen.

Speaking of nothing to lose: Walt Disney's 1940 animated classic "Pinocchio" returns to theaters for the seventh time (the first since its 1985 home video release). How it does in theaters post-video is what some executives in the industry will be watching. But anybody who thinks "Pinocchio" is a risk should have his nose examined.

The Columbus Watch: No, not Chris Columbus, the director of "Home Alone," but Christopher Columbus, the explorer who this year is getting more attention than he's had in centuries. Warner Bros. signed to distribute the Ilya and Alexander Salkind production of "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery," with Tom Selleck, Rachael Ward, Marlon Brando and George Corraface as Columbus. The movie is the first of two features on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the New World in 1492.

Needless to say, anxiety is high at Paramount, where the second Columbus movie will be waiting to dock. That film is "1492," starring Gerard Depardieu, scheduled to open Columbus Day weekend in October.

Can anyone remember a historical drama, created and timed with the intention of cashing in on a major anniversary, that was a success?

Exhibitors: "The challenge this summer is to prove there still is a thirst for American-made movies in America. That people still feel going out to a movie is an OK thing," said one source in the exhibition business.

As a result, the studios this summer will rely heavily on sequels to familiar, successful films like "Batman," "Lethal Weapon," "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," "Alien" and "Pet Sematary."

"This year looks much stronger already," said Michael Patrick, the chief executive officer of the Carmike Cinemas chain operating in 20 states. "For one thing, look at the number of sequels the audience can identify."

Privately, studio executives say that while the movie schedule for summer looks good on paper, there are potential pitfalls.

Some feel the Summer Olympic Games, 161 hours of which NBC will broadcast between July 25 and Aug. 9, might intrude on ticket sales, although Daily Variety analyst Murphy said there is no precedent for that thinking over the last three summer Olympiads. Nevertheless, only one or two movies will open during the two weeks of the Barcelona games.

Avoiding the crunch: With so many high-visibility movies like "Batman Returns" and "Patriot Games" due during the summer, there is always a feeling that lower profile and art-house films are lost in the shuffle. It's even a fear among the major distributors, and that's one reason why 20th Century Fox pulled its "The Last of the Mohicans," based on the classic American novel by James Fenimore Cooper, from a mid-July opening.

"After looking at the movie," said Tom Sherak, Fox executive vice president, "we believe that the worst thing that could happen is that the picture would get lost if it were released now." Translation: Why not position the film for Oscar nominations with a fall release?

Warner Bros. pushed its "Mom and Dad Save the World," with Teri Garr and Jeffrey Jones off the summer lineup. For those of you keeping track, this is the second summer that's happened. After the first, it was pushed to fall, then winter . . . after all this time, can Mom and Dad save this movie?

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