A Squeeze Play Tags the Summer Box Office : A season of monumental successes--and flops--worries many executives that crowds are shunning mid-range films in favor of a few home-run hits.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Eller is the Times movie editor and Natale is a free-lance writer

While media attention has centered on this summer's record box-office weekends and such runaway hits as "The Lion King," "Forrest Gump" and "Speed," what has been obscured is how many big expensive movies have been trampled in their tracks.

"There could possibly be a record number of losers this summer," producer Sean Daniel says. "It looks like Shiloh out there."

Among the biggest pools of red ink are the Kevin Costner Western "Wyatt Earp," John Hughes' production of "Baby's Day Out" and Rob Reiner's comedy "North."

And that's just for starters. The list of summer flops includes several other high-profile, high-cost films: "I Love Trouble" starring Julia Roberts; Penny Marshall's "Renaissance Man" starring Danny DeVito; the Billy Crystal comedy sequel "City Slickers II"; and the Eddie Murphy action sequel "Beverly Hills Cop III."

The season's most distressing trend, industry executives say, is the disappearance of movies grossing in the middle range (between $40 million and $75 million). "There was only room for the home runs this summer," Paramount Pictures chairman Sherry Lansing says. "Audiences rejected everything else. We seem to have lost the doubles. And that's sad."

On the other hand, the films that were big were gigantic. There are more movies grossing $100-million-plus this summer than ever in recent memory. So far there are four ("Lion King," "Gump," "The Flintstones" and "Speed") with another potential three or four on their way ("True Lies," "The Mask," "Clear and Present Danger" and "The Client").

Viewers seem to be returning time and again to their favorite films and have no interest in other releases, producer Jerry Bruckheimer says.

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This leaves a big gap between the $100-million blockbusters and the rest of the pack. Whereas in summers past, there were at least nine or 10 movies that grossed $40 million to $75 million, so far this summer, there have been few. The top three or four films in any given weekend are doing between 75% and 90% of the business, Castle Rock Pictures president Martin Shafer says.

"This summer there will probably be eight movies that gross more than $100 million (there were five in '93), but there will be another eight that will lose a lot of money," Warner Bros. distribution chief Barry Reardon says.

The problem, as virtually any industry executive will tell you, is plain and simple: There are too many movies, and they're crashing into one another.

Industry watchers and the decision makers themselves are again questioning the wisdom of squeezing all their movies into the summer rather than in less competitive periods like spring and fall. Universal chairman Tom Pollock decided to pull Meryl Streep's "The River Wild," as well as Jean Claude Van Damme's "Time Cop," and fit them into more comfortable fall berths. "And I think we'll do better with both of them," he says.

The logjam was particularly problematic for family movies. Even though children are available seven days a week in the summer and go to more movies, this year proved that market isn't limitless. Cases in point: Fox's "Baby's Day Out" and Columbia/Castle Rock's "Little Big League." The former played on Hughes' successful "Home Alone" phenomenon; the latter is another in a skein of kid-oriented baseball movies following last year's popular "Rookie of the Year" and "The Sandlot."

Executives and producers admit that in many cases they become overly enthusiastic after test screening their movies. For instance, Shafer says, the previews on "Little Big League" were sensational. But the fallibility of marketing previews is that they don't take the competition into account, industry pundits say. "When you have a screening in March, it doesn't tell you whether your movie can break through as a consumer choice in June or July," says Daniel, citing his own 1993 film, "Hearts and Souls," as one such example.

What none of these family films saw coming was the "Jurassic Park"-type drawing power of "The Lion King," which is expected to gross $275 million. Twentieth Century Fox chairman Peter Chernin says he believes one of the biggest problems for "Baby's Day Out" was that "our release date was July 1," a holiday weekend when five new movies opened.

"Also, in retrospect, we were too close to 'The Lion King,' which devoured all the family movies in its path," Chernin says.

Similarly, Shafer says Castle Rock was eager to have "the first kid's baseball movie out there" with "Little Big League" (to beat out Disney's "Angels in the Outfield").

"Did we want to go opposite 'The Lion King'? No. . . . We got buried and couldn't hang in there," Shafer says. "If we had to do it over again, we'd probably come out in late August."

Whether any of these movies would have performed better in other time slots is anybody's guess.

Other studio executives were trafficking in 20/20 hindsight about such disappointments as "The Cowboy Way" starring Woody Harrelson, "Wyatt Earp" and "I Love Trouble." Several of the non-performers, which also included sequels to "City Slickers" and "Beverly Hills Cop," looked like sure bets. All of these movies were expected to do far better than they did at the box office.

"Sequels haven't been working for the past year," Reardon says. And star vehicles can sometimes work better at other times of the year. Paramount's 1993 movie "Indecent Proposal," starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore, grossed more than $100 million, and it was released in the spring.

But the nature of the business is for studios to bring out their big guns in summer, because between Memorial Day and Labor Day the industry racks up 40% of its annual box-office revenues.

But losses can be huge, too.

Unless "Wyatt Earp" performs substantially better overseas than it did at home--which was the case with Costner's last domestic dud, "A Perfect World"--Warner Bros. stands to lose a good portion of its reported $60-million investment in the film. "Earp's" ultimate $25-million U.S. gross will not cover even its additional marketing expenditure.

Marketing costs, particularly high in the competitive summer season, can range from $12 million to $30 million, depending on the success of a particular movie. And a studio only retains about half of any film's box-office gross; the rest remains with the theater owner.

At least "Earp" has Costner as a drawing card for video and foreign release, a factor that could also ease some of the pain for other summer losers such as "Cop III," "City Slickers" and "I Love Trouble."

But box-office watchers say an expensive family film like "Baby's Day Out," with no box-office names, has little hope of recouping its cost from other outlets based on its miserable performance at home. Fox's Chernin admits, "We'll lose some money on the movie," but nonetheless insists that "Baby's" foreign potential could be "quite good" because "all the foreign exhibitors really like the movie. And (John) Hughes is a big name overseas."

Another expensive family-movie underachiever is the $40-million "North" starring Elijah Wood, which is Reiner's first flop. Shafer says Castle Rock has no money in the movie (which has only been in release two weeks) because it was financed by its domestic distributor, Columbia Pictures, which paid for a small portion of the budget and all marketing, and New Line Cinema, which will probably recoup its investment because it has domestic video rights and sold off foreign rights before the film went into production.

Other movies that will potentially be a bottom-line drain include Disney's "I Love Trouble" and Universal's "Cowboy Way." Unless they perform extremely well overseas or in video, each could lose between $8 million and $14 million, sources say.

Pre-sales and deals in which studios sell off partial foreign rights to films act as protection when a movie doesn't perform up to snuff, as with Universal's "The Shadow" and Disney's "Renaissance Man," minimizing the impact of the losses.

The summer relay isn't over yet. "Traffic won't clear up until late August," Reardon says. "About five or so films will do business. The rest will fall by the wayside."

It's yet to be seen if moviedom's decision makers will rethink their competitive postures and learn something from this summer.

Nonetheless, the hits will keep coming. And so will the losers.

Box Office Busts

These nine summer movies were supposed to bring in a flood of paying customers, but instead they were swept aside by the season's runaway hits.

ApproximateGross to Title / distributor budget date "Wyatt Earp" (Warner Bros.) $60 million $23.2 million "Beverly Hills Cop 3" (Paramount) $50 million $41.1 million "Baby's Day Out" (Fox) $48 million $13.7 million "The Shadow" (Universal) $47 million $28.6 million "I Love Trouble" (Disney) $45 million $28 million "North" (Columbia) $40 million $6 million "Renaissance Man" (Disney) $40 million $23.4 million "City Slickers II" (Columbia) $40 million $40.5 million "The Cowboy Way" (Universal) $35 million $19.3 million

Source: Box office figures from Exhibitor Relations Co.

Researched by Calender staff

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