The Money's Where the Action Is

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Another year, another record, with the 1996 domestic box office totaling $5.8 billion, almost 9% over 1995. Two special-effects-driven vehicles--"Independence Day" and "Twister"--dominated the year, heading a Top 10 list that, in contrast to 1995's family-oriented mix, contained five big-budget action films.

The last 12 months have been a bit blockbuster-heavy, with 12 pictures passing the $100-million mark domestically, observed Tom Borys, senior vice president of development at the box-office tracking firm Entertainment Data Inc. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Jerry Maguire" look certain to go over in '97, he said, and "Michael" is a contender as well.

"We've already tied the record of 12 $100-million pictures established in 1994," Borys said. "Last year at this time we had only seven, though there were more doubles and triples, pictures grossing in the $50-[million] to $99-million range."

The international market was also flush. Three films--"Independence Day," "Twister" and "Mission: Impossible"--grossed more than $200 million abroad compared with only one ("Die Hard With a Vengeance") last year. Bolstered by a host of new theaters, business was up 15% to 20% in Germany and the United Kingdom.

"The foreign market seems to be accepting a more varied menu of our films," said Jeff Blake, president of Sony Pictures Releasing. "Not only action movies are doing well. From a creative point of view, we can turn out a broader slate of pictures if we're convinced they'll travel . . . that hits over here will be hits over there."

Foreign revenues will be particularly significant for films such as Sylvester Stallone's "Daylight," the star-laden "Mars Attacks!" and for Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Jingle All the Way," which had disappointing domestic runs relative to their cost, in each case said to be in the $75-million to $80-million range.

The debate over stratospheric star salaries is still unresolved. Sharon Stone's "Diabolique" and "Last Dance," Bruce Willis' "Last Man Standing" and Jim Carrey's "The Cable Guy" (with a $60-million domestic gross his first starring vehicle to fall short of $100 million) made a strong case against them. But the investments paid off with Tom Cruise's "Jerry Maguire" and "Mission: Impossible," Schwarzenegger's action-adventure "Eraser," Mel Gibson's "Ransom," the Nicolas Cage-Sean Connery thriller "The Rock" and John Travolta's "Broken Arrow," "Phenomenon" and "Michael."

Whether story or star power drives the market, studios continue to hedge their bets. "Since the star pool is limited, these salaries are the price of poker in this town," said Wayne Lewellen, head of distribution at Paramount Pictures. "The bar has been raised if you're playing the game."

"The First Wives Club" proved to be the sleeper of the year, along with Mike Nichols' "Cage aux Folles" remake "The Birdcage" and Eddie Murphy's comeback film "The Nutty Professor," the only comedies to land in the Top 10. Featuring veterans Bette Midler, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn, the movie was targeted on the long-ignored over-40 female audience, along with "Mother," "One Fine Day," "The Mirror Has Two Faces" and "The Evening Star."

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The potential of an African American audience hungry for positive screen imagery was demonstrated by the $67 million taken in by "Waiting to Exhale," which became something of a social phenomenon. Although "The Preacher's Wife," starring Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington, got off to a slow start, several low-budget niche films proved successful. The hip-hop "A Thin Line Between Love & Hate" ($34 million gross), the female heist movie "Set It Off" ($33 million) and 'hood spoof "Don't Be a Menace . . . " ($20 million) returned healthy profits.

Although the animated "Hunchback of Notre Dame" performed below expectations, films distributed by the Walt Disney Co. grossed more than $1 billion for the third straight year, an industry record. Trailing Disney in market share were Warner Bros., either 20th Century Fox or Paramount--the race is still too close to call--and Sony, Universal and MGM.

Cutting into profits were rising production and marketing costs, totaling an average $60 million per film. In addition to the ever-present fast-food tie-ins, 1996 saw a plane drag an "Independence Day" banner above Santa Monica Beach and "Mission: Impossible" star Tom Cruise's likeness adorn an Apple desktop computer TV ad. Disney, however, backed off its plan to pepper the Hollywood sign with Dalmatian spots.

Since the price of scouting locations, paying support staff and buying media time doesn't go down, the way to cut costs--and avoid financial disaster--is by cinematic volume control, executives said. Although the number of pictures rose by only seven from the previous year, to 417 from 410, it was still far too many for consumers to consume.

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Because of the need to open by today for Oscar consideration, the glut was particularly intense during the last couple of weeks.

"I've never seen so many exclusive engagements so late in the year," said Tom Sherak, senior executive vice president at 20th Century Fox, eyeing a Christmas Day on which nine new pictures were released. "They can't all survive . . . and people in New York and Los Angeles, where they open, need psychiatrists to know what to see. I'd like to think that fewer movies will be made down the road, but only time will tell."

What lessons were learned in '96?

"Though you can open up a movie any time of the year, some periods can only support one hit," Blake said. "Though nearly everything that opened in November seemed to work, 'The Birdcage' in March and 'The First Wives Club' in September cornered the market."

Lewellen found that adult-oriented films are a breed unto themselves when it comes to holiday time. "Historically, there have been some very good pictures of this type opening between Thanksgiving and Christmas," he recalled. "But, as an industry, we should recognize that it's a major risk to open a 'One Fine Day' or a 'My Fellow Americans' before Christmas Day since people are consumed by shopping."

Sherak, for his part, would advise against releasing a picture when an American Olympics is being staged. "This one became an American event--and that hurt business," he said. "And because everything was live, instead of tape-delayed, people stayed home to watch. It didn't harm 'Independence Day' very much, but other pictures were hurt and quickly replaced."

Whether the market will continue expanding, Sherak said, is anyone's guess. "Next year could be the biggest in the history of the business," he said. "There are 12 'event' films opening, and if they all work . . . oh my God. In any case, this is not an industry built on negativity. . . . It's P.T. Barnum, the magic business, not brain surgery. It's only in the arena of profitability that we have to worry."

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Top Domestic Grossing Movies

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Title In Millions 1. "Independence Day"* $306.2 2. "Twister" 241.7 3. "Mission: Impossible" 180.9 4. "The Rock" 134.0 5. "The Nutty Professor" 128.8 6. "Ransom" * 124.6 7. "The Birdcage" 124.0 8. "A Time to Kill" 108.7 9. "Phenomenon"* 104.5 10. "First Wives Club" * 103.4

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* Indicates movies still in theaters.

Source: Times Research

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