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'Purple,' 'africa' Pace Box Office

January 02, 1986|DAVID T. FRIENDLY | Times Staff Writer

The year 1985 is not likely to be remembered as one of Hollywood's best.

Audiences and critics found little to rejoice about as ticket sales plunged, sending the movie business into its first recession in years. But like the holiday temperatures, which broke into the 80s on Christmas Day, the box-office thermometer heated up as the movie business zoomed into a post-Christmas rally that will give a healthy push to the start of 1986. "This past weekend the business roared ahead on schedule," said Art Murphy, box-office analyst for Variety.

Paced by "Rocky IV," which took in a whopping $86.5 million in its first 33 days--"That's not a movie, that's a franchise," said one producer--Stallone's latest was joined by "The Color Purple," "Out of Africa" "Spies Likes Us" and "101 Dalmatians," all of which attracted better than anticipated post-Christmas crowds.

"It certainly turned around what had been a very poor fall," said Dick Cook, senior vice president of distribution for Walt Disney Productions. "It ended the year on a very positive note."

And the boomlet focused the spotlight on the burgeoning competition between the favored Oscar contenders: Warner Bros.' "The Color Purple" and Universal's "Out of Africa." Over the weekend, Steven Spielberg's first dramatic entry improved 85% over the previous weekend, averaging a spectacular $15,600 per screen at 202 theaters. "Out Of Africa," which opened at 922 theaters, improved 79% over its opening, averaging a healthy $7,000 per screen.

So which of the two won the weekend? Despite the apparent gap in figures, the two are actually close contenders. Because they are being marketed differently, it's a little hard to analyze in detail. "The Color Purple" was "platformed" (opened in a small number of theaters in the hope that good word-of-mouth would increase interest in the movie), while "Out of Africa," with well-known stars Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, opened "wide."

"I'd say our weekends were about equal," said Marvin Antanowsky, president of marketing for Universal Pictures. "If we had been able to run six shows a day instead of four ("Africa" runs about 2 1/2 hours), our per-screen average would have been much higher. At this point it's too early to tell."

At Warner Bros., the holiday mood was outright jubilation over the resiliency of the comedy "Spies Like Us," which has taken in a healthy $33.5 million in its first 24 days at 1,700 theaters, and by the dramatic improvement for "Purple." "We are talking about a movie with no big names (with the exception of the director) based on a book with limited exposure," said Warner Bros. Distribution President Barry Reardon. "We needed good reviews and word-of-mouth to make it happen, and we got them both." Unlike last Christmas, when "Beverly Hills Cop" dominated the Christmas season and little else found a significant audience, this year the business was spread out among several pictures. Twentieth Century Fox's "Jewel of the Nile" took in $8 million, improving some 70% from the previous weekend and bringing its 19-day total to a promising $27.6 million. Fox's other Christmas picture, "Enemy Mine," managed a disappointing $1.9 million, bringing its 10-day total to about $5 million.

The surprise of the season, though, and the movie that quickly told industry insiders this was going to be a brisk holiday, was Disney's re-release of "101 Dalmatians." Those pesky puppies (Puppies no more, the movie first opened in 1961) helped Disney set a record. "Dalmatians" took in $2.2 million last Saturday, the biggest single day for an animated picture in Disney history. The movie grossed a total of $5.7 million over the weekend, (an increase of 139% from the previous weekend), much of that coming from kids' tickets, which are sold at reduced prices.

There also were some dark spots on this otherwise sunny celluloid horizon. Tri-Star's "Santa Claus" fell off dramatically--"I guess Santa went back to the North Pole," said one Tri-Star executive. And Paramount Pictures had little to cheer about as its two Christmas releases, "Clue" and "Young Sherlock Holmes," did not live up to expectations. Thus far, "Young Sherlock" has taken in a disappointing $11.4 million in its first 26 days while "Clue" has managed just $7.6 million in 17 days. (Still, both pictures improved more than 50% from the previous weekend.)

The post-Christmas weekend is traditionally one of the biggest of the year and industry insiders hope the rebound is more than a one-weekend stand. Experts say the momentum is helped considerably by the diversity of movies available.

"I can see five movies that will do more than $20 million (each) in rentals" (which could translate to more than $40 million per movie in ticket sales), says Universal's Antanowsky. "I know 'Out of Africa' will have 'legs' well into April."

It wasn't just the so-called majors that wound up with late bloomers. Cannon may have the sleeper of the year in "Runaway Train," which improved more than 50% last weekend and appears to be profiting from excellent word-of-mouth. According to Cannon chief executive Menahem Golan, 1985 was a banner year for the company, which managed to steal some 10% of the box office from the majors. "We had four hits," said Golan, "and we have even bigger expectations for 1986."

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