A More Bountiful Harvest

James Bates is a staff writer in The Times' business section

At the point when it became obvious that Universal Pictures' "Out of Sight" wasn't going to catch fire at the box office this summer no matter how many great reviews it got, the second-guessing kicked in.

One of the theories of Hollywood pundits was that the George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez crime thriller might have done better as a "fall movie."

The idea that any movie with commercial prospects was best left for release in the fall movie season--that period between Labor Day and early November once viewed as a wasteland for anything with a prayer of making a dent in the box office--was virtually unheard of not that long ago.

Fall has always been the place where studios took a breather, the pause that came after they disengaged from the summer action dogfights and moved into a holding pattern until the year-end holiday splash started just before Thanksgiving.

Fall also is a Miramax time of year, the place for a few smaller movies that might snatch an Academy Award nomination to appear, or for a riskier film that critics love, like "L.A. Confidential," to be released. It can also be the dumping ground for the major studio films that didn't make the cut for the summer season, or when some truly awful movies ("Showgirls," "The Long Kiss Goodnight") try to squeeze out a few dollars amid the lack of strong competition.

Now, a handful of films in the past five years has turned fall into a place viewed increasingly as one where a sleeper hit can potentially flourish, albeit at nowhere near the kind of blockbuster-level numbers the summer and Christmas season produces.

Last year's "I Know What You Did Last Summer," which on the surface seemed like a natural teen summer flick, was an October-released hit.

Two years ago, "The First Wives Club" opened in September and ended up grossing a surprising $105 million at the domestic box office. "Seven" in 1995 also opened in September and grossed $100 million domestically. Other September and October hits in recent years include "In and Out," "Under Siege," "Get Shorty," "Stargate" and "Pulp Fiction."

Although it's mostly a recent trend, a few fall movies in the 1980s managed to do the same thing, notably "Fatal Attraction," in 1987. Then there's the all-time champion, the "Gone With the Wind" for the September-October period: "Crocodile Dundee."

It may seem like ancient history since Paul Hogan was putting shrimp on the barbie, but the $174 million the movie grossed domestically after opening in September 1986 has been a record for 12 years.

Although the release schedule is not as frenetic as during the summer, studios this year will still be averaging two to three new movies in wide release a weekend. Wedged into fall slots include such anticipated studio films as "One True Thing," "Beloved" and "What Dreams May Come."

The performance of some fall films has reinforced the emerging conventional wisdom of film distributors that the business is more of year-round than they've always assumed. Movies like "Titanic" and "Jerry Maguire" did a big chunk of their business in the post-holiday first quarter, which, like the fall, has been viewed as a relatively slow period. That helped refute the theory that big movies can only do substantial business during the summer or the holidays.

"It's nothing more than a theory. I think it's all a lot of hogwash. A good movie can be released at any time," says Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox's Domestic Film Group.

Nonetheless, for studios--and moviegoers as well--fall is loaded with both pluses and minuses. Here are a few:

Plus: You don't have to spend $150 million (and another $50 million on marketing) to save the world from an asteroid or comet.

Fall is mercifully free of big-budget extravaganzas and the nonstop marketing campaigns that assault you for weeks leading up to a movie opening.

Because heads don't usually roll over fall movies, there is a lack of hype and expectation. Still, that doesn't mean the competitive juices aren't flowing.

"You have a lot more adult titles, but pretty much every week a picture is striving to be a big commercial hit as well," says Sony distribution chief Jeff Blake.

Plus: Fall also isn't the time when the success or failure of a film is directly proportional to the number of cheeseburger Happy Meals sold.

Since kids are in school, fall is free from the tie-in hype that comes with every major kids' movie. This year, however, DreamWorks SKG decided to move up its computer-animated "Antz" to Oct. 2 to get a jump on "A Bug's Life," the computer-generated film from Disney and Pixar planned for Thanksgiving.

But don't call "Antz" a movie for children. The studio in its press materials is referring to it now as a "romantic comedy."

Minus: Theaters are emptier.

Business drops off some 40% after Labor Day for obvious reasons: Kids who had nothing to do but go to the movies may still have nothing to do, but at least they are back in school. Families have returned from vacations. High school kids go to Friday night football games.

Plus: Theaters are emptier.

The floors are less sticky, and there's not as much leftover popcorn from the guy who sat in your seat during the last show. There are fewer bigmouths shouting while you're trying to watch. And you can regain the hearing you lost in "Armageddon."

Plus: Because studio jobs aren't on the line, a movie viewer has time to see a film before it leaves the theater, even if it pulls in less than $20 million the first weekend.

There's less of the "here today, gone tomorrow" characteristic of the summer movie season, where any film that can't crack the Top 5 gets a swift death sentence. An opening of $12 million in the fall is considered pretty good.

Although the opening weekend still largely decides if the movie will be a hit or not, fall movies potentially can even get a second and third chance.

"Fall presents the opportunity for films, more than any other time of the year, to find an audience, unlike summer, when every week four or five movies are released. Some films can't, or don't, have major stars. They can have an opportunity to play for weeks," said Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Co.'s Motion Picture Group.

Minus: Fall marks the debut of the new TV season.

Kids are watching "Dawson's Creek," "The X-Files," and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Adults are watching "ER" and whatever newsmagazine is on.

Plus: Fall marks the debut of the new TV season.

Who watches network TV these days anyway? Back when everyone you knew cared who shot J.R., the studios had something to worry about. Not anymore.

Minus: Tom Hanks in a hot movie playing well in late summer.

A good summer movie can continue to wreak havoc with new movies well into the fall.

"Forrest Gump" played well into the fall, as did "Air Force One." This year, "Saving Private Ryan" and "There's Something About Mary" may do the same.

" 'Saving Private Ryan' is going to play and play and play for quite a long time. If you have a fall film looking to break into the market, it may be a little more difficult this year," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Inc.

Minus: They don't call it the Fall Classic for nothing:

Given Hollywood's creativity at coming up with reasons why people shunned a movie, look for slugger Mark McGwire and the New York Yankees to get some of the blame if some of this year's fall releases turn into duds.

McGwire's towering home runs on the way to a season record, as well as the Yankees' blistering pace, have meant a resurgence for baseball, which doesn't bode well for movies hoping to attract young males during the World Series. A single good Series weekend can kill the openings of movies that can never be recovered.

Fortunately, the entertainment giants that own both baseball teams and movie studios won't have have a conflict this year. Fox's movies have been doing well, but its Los Angeles Dodgers will be home for the series. Walt Disney's Anaheim Angels probably won't get past the Yankees.

Time Warner Inc.'s Atlanta Braves are a good bet to end up in the World Series. That would make for a conflict with Warner Bros. movies, if anyone were watching Warner Bros. movies these days.

Plus: It's also a good time for Fellini film festivals.

Moviegoing picks up substantially in places like South Bend, Ind.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Ann Arbor, Mich. College students like to see a lot of movies, which is good for Hollywood.

But college audiences can be pretty discriminating, and it usually takes more than Neve or Jennifer to get them to buy a ticket.

Plus and Minus: More "Oscar-bound" performances.

Better movies come out in the fall than in the summer. The downside is that Oscar hype, once mercifully a seasonal thing usually starting after the first of the year, is now virtually year-round.

This year, Jim Carrey hype during "The Truman Show" started it. Now it's saturated with "Saving Private Ryan" Oscar hype.

Plus, Plus, Plus: There are fewer quotes to read from Jeff Craig and Ron Brewington.

Fall is a time for "review-driven" films from critics who really matter. Lots of films to be dubbed "a masterpiece" and "tour de force." And the endless Top 10 film lists start taking shape.

The good news is it's also a nearly blurb-free zone. Don't look for: "The thrill ride of the year!," "Riveting!" or "Arnold will be back . . . to pick up his Oscar!"*

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