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A Summer Of Discontent At The Box Office

August 06, 1985|DAVID T. FRIENDLY | Times Staff Writer

Intelligence borrows but genius steals.

--Hollywood maxim

Movie making will forever be a business of copycats, but this summer the major studios may have cloned themselves out of another boffo box office.

Consider: Within a one-week period three science-flavored youth comedies are opening: Universal's "Weird Science," (which took in $4.8 million in its first weekend at 1,158 theaters) Tri-Star's "Real Genius" and Disney's "My Science Project." It would take a real genius just to sort them out. Because of the similarity in titles and marketing, industry experts are convinced that it is virtually impossible for all three, if any, to succeed.

Such overlapping has plagued the studios all summer long. "There were too many pictures trying to reach the same audience," says David Weitzner, 20th Century Fox marketing president. "There was a lot of meat thrown in the water; the surprise is that the sharks didn't always show up."

Too many movies and too many mediocre movies. These are the problems that have led to a respectable but less than anticipated summer box office. While the eight major studios are churning out 47 movies between Memorial Day and Labor Day (eight more than last year), industry analyst Art Murphy projects a domestic box-office take of about $1.35 billion, 14.5% below last summer's record $1.58 billion. Says Murphy: "This is the slowest summer in the last five years."

There have been bright spots--most notably Tri-Star's "Rambo: First Blood Part II," which has earned almost $140 million in 10 weeks at the box office, and Universal's "Back to the Future," which has taken in $82 million in its first month. But last summer's bumper crop of blockbusters--"Ghostbusters," "Purple Rain," "Gremlins," "The Karate Kid" and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"--could not be matched. "Last summer benefited from an unprecedented number of $100-million grossers," says director Steven Spielberg, on location in North Carolina shooting "The Color Purple." "American moviegoers overate, and I think they are now on a diet which may last through Christmas."

Did they overeat or did they lose their appetite from a spate of less-than-overwhelming pictures?

"There have been too many mediocre films and too many films that tend to look like one another," says Laurence Mark, executive vice president of production at 20th Century Fox. "You read an ad and you truly think you've already seen the movie."

With that pack mentality approach to movie making, release dates have been more critical than ever. Warner Bros.' "Goonies," for example, benefited from an early start date (June 7) and has earned $58.3 million in its first eight weeks. But "Explorers," a $24-million kids adventure-fantasy that Paramount Pictures had high hopes for, quickly fizzled at the box office. "Here was a wonderful piece of material," says one executive connected with the film. "But by the time it came out, you felt as though you'd already seen it."

Similarly, Warner Bros.' Clint Eastwood Western "Pale Rider" ($38.3 million to date) had a two-week gallop on its competition and has doubled Columbia's "Silverado" take, the summer's only other shoot-'em-up.

"When you are in that sort of a position, being first is best," says Barry London, Paramount's president of domestic distribution. "The competition has to separate their product from you." The mediocre returns on both of these Westerns may sound the death knell for this once- sturdy genre. "The first thing TV usurped was the Western," says Sumner Redstone, president of the 350-theater National Amusements. "It's just a bad gamble."

In contrast to last summer, when the major studios "front-loaded" their movies--opening the bulk of them in June and July because of the Olympics--this summer seems more balanced. While grosses dropped about 40% in its second weekend, "National Lampoon's European Vacation" has already earned $27.4 million in its first 10 days. "I don't care what the reviews say, the fact is the audience loves the movie," says Alan Friedberg, president of the 192 Sack theaters.

Still to come are comedies like Paramount's "Summer Rental" (one of three summer movies starring John Candy) and Columbia's "Fright Night," which earned $6.1 million in its first weekend at 1,500 theaters. If any of the above perform well at the box office, there's a good chance ticket sales for this month will exceed that of August levels in 1984.

This summer blizzard of celluloid is simply part of a typical business cycle, says analyst Murphy. He argues that the slackening in summer business is part of a recession that hit the movie business in January. The last such recession lasted from the fall of 1979 through June, 1981, ending with the opening of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

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