Last May, moments before the start of a press screening of "Top Gun" on the Paramount Pictures lot, studio publicists led in a group of about 40 young teen-age girls who quickly filled the remaining empty seats in front of the small theater. It didn't take long to find out why.
The girls were unnaturally restrained and well-behaved during the opening credits, but when Tom Cruise flashed his blinding world- class smile for the first of what would be dozens of times, the young audience was cut to sighs, then swoons, then shrieks.
Since then, "Top Gun" has gone on to become the year's most popular movie. It has earned more than $125 million, $30 million more than its nearest summer rival, "Karate Kid II," and made Cruise's smile one of the most solid assets in Hollywood.
In the old days, Paramount would have treated Cruise's teeth the way Fox treated Betty Grable's legs, by taking out a $1-million insurance policy with Lloyds of London. But the beneficiary in this case would be the Disney studio, which steps up this fall with Cruise's next picture, "The Color of Money" (co-featuring the Hall of Fame eyes of Paul Newman.)
"Top Gun" took a drubbing from most critics, as did last summer's champ, "Rambo: First Blood Part II." But most critics aren't driven to the theaters by hormones. Analysts can talk about the impact of VCRs and pay cable on the movie business. The success of "Top Gun" suggests a stronger link with estrogen.
Among studios, Paramount also wins the summer. Besides "Top Gun," it released "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," John Hughes' latest assault on adulthood. "Ferris" will have grossed about $60 million by the end of the week.
Paramount has to be disappointed with the receipts from "Heartburn" ($21 million) and "Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives" ($18 million). But when you consider that "Hearburn" was made for adult moviegoers, who are generally dormant this time of year, and that "Friday the 13th" is the sixth entry in perhaps the worst movie series in history . . . not bad.
According to Art Murphy, Daily Variety's reliable box-office trend watcher, the summer of '86 will end up doing about as much business as the summer of '85, despite having only one megahit.
Murphy predicts that the final summer '86 tally will be around $1.4 billion, a figure that will rank it in the top five of all time. That may not be cheering news to exhibitors, in the midst of booms in both videocassette rentals and theater building. Records are relative. Although ticket prices have certainly shown a consistent increase, the actual number of tickets sold has hovered at about 1 billion for the last 25 years.
Most studio people discount the impact VCRs and videocassettes are having on film-going habits; they may be right. But you can't be in two places at one time. There are more than 22,000 video stores in the country, many of them doing big business on weekends. Where else might all those movie shoppers go?
The major studios made a stronger effort this summer to woo older film-goers into theaters, and they had some luck.
Last year, "Prizzi's Honor" was the only adult-themed film in the top 15 spots on the box-office chart. This year, there were five, including "Ruthless People," "Legal Eagles," "Running Scared," "About Last Night . . . " and "Heartburn."
Measuring box-office receipts against expectations is an industrial illness in Hollywood. Among the films this summer that are generally regarded as losers are "Poltergeist II: The Other Side," "Legal Eagles" and "Cobra." Between them, they have taken in more than $130 million.
"Cobra," the summer's most critically savaged release, was labeled a bomb because it did only $48 million with Sylvester Stallone. The imponderable way of looking at it is that more than 10 million people ignored the critics and bought a ticket!
There were enough real losers without picking on Stallone. "Howard the Duck" laid the most celebrated egg, whether you measured it against expectations or receipts. The $35-million film, one of the summer's preseason box-office favorites, was playing on double bills by the second weekend and will finish the summer (and its run) with less than $15 million in grosses.
Then there was "Pirates," the long-awaited, quickly gone high-seas adventure that Roman Polanski first started working on nearly 10 years ago. The film reportedly cost nearly $40 million to make and returned about $1 million in film rentals to its American distributor, Cannon Films. The ship in "Pirates," which is being converted into a museum on the French Riviera, cost about $8 million.
Although Paramount always has summer contenders, there were signs of a shifting balance of box-office power. Warner Bros. and Universal, two busy giants, had seven of the Top 10 box-office draws last summer. This year, each had one. Universal had the No. 7 "Legal Eagles," Warner Bros. had the No. 8 "Cobra."