Box Office Gets Its Punch From Just a Few Hits

If it weren't for the 1997 holiday holdover movies and Oscar nominees such as "Good Will Hunting," "As Good as It Gets" and, of course, "Titanic," U.S. movie ticket sales for the first two months of the new year would be pretty dismal.

"U.S. Marshals," Warner Bros.' follow-up to "The Fugitive," had a decent opening over the weekend ($16.8 million), but the Tommy Lee Jones vehicle still wasn't good enough to knock "Titanic" off the top box-office perch after 12 long weeks.

The only new film to really break out since the new year began is New Line Cinema's comedy hit "The Wedding Singer," starring Adam Sandler, which has grossed nearly $60 million in four weeks.

Most other new offerings--from Warner Bros.' mega-expensive flop, "Sphere," to Disney's more modestly priced dud, "Krippendorf's Tribe"--have failed to excite audiences.

"The motion picture business is really being carried by the Christmas movies," says Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox's Domestic Film Group.

Sherak and other movie executives know that the market is elastic. Audiences will come if they're interested. They'll stay away if they're not.

"As occasionally happens, there are leaner, orphan periods and we've just been going through one," says John Krier, whose company, Exhibitor Relations Co., tracks box-office receipts.

Like Krier, theater owners--who are gathering in Las Vegas this week for their annual ShoWest exhibitors convention--are hoping that everyone's best product is yet to come, though many admit that the inventory of potential hits looks awfully thin.

Those films expected to have the best shot at doing some serious business before summer include Mike Nichols' political satire, "Primary Colors"--that is, if it isn't hurt by the real-life White House sex scandal--Robert Redford's romantic drama, "The Horse Whisperer," and Harold Becker's actioner, "Mercury Rising," starring Bruce Willis.

MGM/UA's "The Man in the Iron Mask" is expected to open strongly Friday--if for no other reason than it stars Hollywood's hottest young male lead, Leonardo DiCaprio--but its long-term prospects are unclear. DiCaprio will essentially be competing against himself this weekend, because "Titanic," which grossed $17.6 million over the weekend with a mere 10% drop-off in ticket sales, is still raking in phenomenal business week after week.

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The summer seems to lack the kind of big-event movie punch that typifies the industry's most lucrative moviegoing season. Summer box-office accounts for as much as 40% of the year's total domestic box-office earnings.

Beyond Sony Pictures' much-hyped remake of "Godzilla" and Disney's big action movie "Armageddon," from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, few others scream out as potential blockbusters.

Last year, the studios packed the summer with back-to-back extravaganzas. Nine films grossed $100 million or more (10 if you count the $99 million that "Hercules" took in), two of which--"Men in Black" and "The Lost World: Jurassic Park"--each sold more than $200 million worth of tickets.

"I don't believe summer is going to be as good as last summer," says Chan Wood, head film buyer for Los Angeles-based Pacific Theaters. "But it is a business of peaks and valleys, so I'm sure, as we always are, we're going to be surprised."

Nobody expected last year's sleeper family film "George of the Jungle" to gross more than $100 million. Nor did anyone expect the romantic comedy "My Best Friend's Wedding" to compete as impressively with the big-effects movies as it did, collecting more than $125 million.

There seems to be little explanation for why there aren't as many event films populating the summer schedule, though some industry insiders have theories.

"Most companies were reacting from last summer and didn't go out and make the big movies," suggested Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth, referring to last summer's overcrowded, highly competitive market that saw several casualties along with the hits.

There's only one major sequel in the upcoming mix--Warner Bros.' "Lethal Weapon 4"--which is highly atypical of the summer moviegoing period.

Fox and Paramount, which partnered on "Titanic," weren't about to go out and give the green light to any costly movies for the summer since they had their hands full (especially Fox, which paid most of the runaway $200-million-plus production cost).

Sony focused most of its attention and financial resources on "Godzilla." Disney did the same, on the live-action side, with "Armageddon." Warner Bros. has suffered a protracted losing streak at the box office that it can't seem to shake. And Universal Pictures was busy regrouping its movie division.

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While current prospects for this summer don't appear to be as great as last year's, distributors and exhibitors are quick to point out that it's too early to call.

In fact, there are some exhibitors, such as Michael Patrick, who runs Carmike Cinemas in Columbus, Ga., who are quite upbeat about this year's crop.

"It's going to be my kind of summer," says Patrick, whose circuit of more than 2,700 screens across 35 states concentrates in markets with an average population of 80,000. "This year there are more pictures targeted toward the mainstream audience, and my markets will do better with the family and action pictures than the sophisticated ones."

Among the films competing for children and family dollars this summer are Disney's animated entry, "Moulan" (June 19); DreamWorks' live-action/computer-generated animation movie, "Small Soldiers" (July 10); and Fox's "Doctor Dolittle" (June 26), starring Eddie Murphy.

Unless everybody's wrong, "Godzilla" and "Armageddon" will be the two films to beat this summer.

Other product generating heat in Hollywood circles include Peter Weir's drama, "The Truman Show" (June 5), starring box-office giant Jim Carrey; Ivan Reitman's romantic adventure, "6 Days, 7 Nights," which teams Harrison Ford and Anne Heche (June 12); Rob Bowman's "The X-Files Movie," with David Duchovny (June 19); Steven Spielberg's war movie, "Saving Private Ryan," starring Tom Hanks (July 24); and Brian DePalma's action thriller, "Snake Eyes," with Nicolas Cage (Aug. 7).

Even if on paper the summer of 1998 doesn't look like it will stack up against last year, Fox's Sherak reminds: "We've all been fooled before, and it's much more fun that way."

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Exhibitor Relations Co. provided the box-office figures for this report.

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