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JACK MATHEWS

January a Cinderella Month for Disney Studio

February 05, 1988|JACK MATHEWS

January and February used to be the months when movie marquees suddenly blossomed with such titles as "Slithering Incubus," "Zombie Orgies on Mars" and "The Mold Monsters From Camembert."

Not this year. American moviegoers were so appreciative of the movies that the major studios offered at Christmas that they kept buying tickets to them through most of January. Indeed, they bought so many tickets that January closed out with a record $255 million in the box-office cash register.

Naturally, most of the profits from those sales have ended up in the bank accounts of the major studios, most notably in the bank account of Walt Disney Productions.

The Burbank studio with the water tower with Mickey Mouse on it had the month's top two box- office hits--"Three Men and a Baby" and "Good Morning, Vietnam." When "Cinderella's" contributions were added in, Disney accounted for $78.4 million, or 30.6%, of the industry's total gross.

Where is Paramount, the studio that owned January, 1987, and went on to take a 20% share of the year's record $4.32-billion grosses?

Back with the pack. According to figures reported by Daily Variety's Art Murphy, Paramount's two Christmas releases--"Planes, Trains and Automobiles" and "Eddie Murphy Raw"--accounted for just 13.1% of the month's total, while Fox (with "Wall Street" and "Broadcast News") had 11.4% and MGM/UA (with "Moonstruck" and "Overboard") finished fourth with an 11% share.

One month does not a year make, but Disney's January set a pace that is going to be hard for Paramount to overcome.

Disney and Paramount nearly reversed their shares of January's box office between 1987 and 1988. Last year, Paramount had four films earning money in January, the top two being "Star Trek IV" and "The Golden Child."

Figures provided by Exhibitor Relations Co. show that Paramount finished that month with $89.8 million, a whopping 47% of the industry total.

At the same time, Disney's Christmas hold-over "The Lady and the Tramp" and the first two days of the eventual hit "Outrageous Fortune" accounted for less than 10% of the January, 1987, total.

What a difference a year makes. Paramount's receipts for January, 1988, were down more than $50 million from receipts during the same period a year ago. Disney's grosses were up this January over last January's by more than $50 million. It is a difference that Leonard Nimoy fans would like to explain.

Paramount had a big January in 1987 largely because of the success of "Star Trek IV," which Nimoy directed. Disney's fast start this year is largely due to the success of "Three Men and a Baby," which Nimoy also directed.

Mr. Spock is hot. In successive years, he has directed the No.1 Christmas releases, films that have grossed more than $200 million between them.

Paramount, despite its slow 1988 start, will likely finish strong. The studio will almost certainly dominate the rich summer months with " 'Crocodile' Dundee II" and its yet untitled Eddie Murphy comedy. But the Disney Juggernaut is real.

Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who exchanged their top Paramount jobs for top Disney jobs a few years ago, have reverted to the formula of the old studio era to create mainstream films. The Disney movies rely on solidly constructed--if familiar--scripts with roles carefully tailored for particular stars.

In a way, Eisner has returned Disney to its former glory as the family entertainment studio. "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," "Stake-Out" and "Good Morning, Vietnam" contain material that would have put a blush on Walt's cheeks, but take a look, families go to them.

The previous administration at Disney realized that the studio would have to tread where Walt would not have if it were to have a chance at increasing its share of the annual box office. It had, in fact, created Disney's Touchstone Films division for that purpose.

When Touchstone was launched, the then-Disney executives assured people through the media that the new division would not be dealing with R-rated films. That was like being just sort of pregnant, and when Eisner and Katzenberg showed up, the studio dropped all pretenses. (Well, almost all. Executives there still get a little nuts whenever the media put Disney's name on Touchstone films.)

If there is any sense of betrayal out there, it hasn't shown up at the box office. Disney's rise on the annual box-office list has been the envy of everyone except Paramount.

Four years ago, Disney finished 10th. Three years ago, it finished third. Last year, it was second. This year. . . .

If this keeps up, they're going to have to consider changing the name of Dopey Drive.

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