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Summer Box Office Heats Up : Despite Higher Ticket Prices, Biggest-Grossing Season Since '84 Seen

September 01, 1988|NINA J. EASTON | Times Staff Writer

'Tis the season of the $100-million movie gate. Not since the summer of 1984--when audiences queued up around city blocks to see "Ghostbusters" and sequels to "Star Trek" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark"--have so many films qualified as box office hits.

No film soared near the $200-million mark, as "Ghostbusters" did in 1984. But three movies have grossed more than $100 million at the box office-- Disney/Touchstone's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," and two Paramount Pictures releases, "Coming to America" and " 'Crocodile' Dundee II." A fourth, 20th Century Fox's "Big," should break through the $100-million barrier soon.

Four other films have generated more than $50 million in ticket sales so far. And two of those-- Fox's "Die Hard" and Disney/Touchstone's "Cocktail"--were mid-summer releases that are expected to continue their momentum at the box office as fall approaches. The other two are MGM/UA'S "Willow," with $54.2 million, and Tri-Star's "Rambo III," with $53.6 million so far.

"This was one of the best summers I can remember, and it was made better by the variety of good films out there," said Paul Roth, president of Roth Enterprises Inc., which operates more than 50 theaters in Washington, D.C., the Carolinas and Pennsylvania.

Said Greg Rutkowski, vice president of West Coast operations for AMC Entertainment, the nation's third largest theater owner: "The studios have stepped forward and made good films available in sufficient numbers to keep our theaters booked all summer."

Box office receipts, at $1.3 billion so far, are up nearly 10% over last summer, according to Phil Garfinkle, senior vice president of Entertainment Data Inc. A little more than half of that increase is attributable to higher ticket prices, according to data compiled by the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

Actual ticket purchases were up roughly 5% over last summer.

CinemaScore, a research firm that polls audiences as they leave theaters on opening nights, found that this summer's fare was heartily received by moviegoers.

"The last time the ratings were this good was in 1984," said CinemaScore President Edward Mintz.

Exhibitors and research firms said studios this summer displayed a willingness to cater to the expanding audience of adult filmgoers as well as the lucrative teen market.

"There was a broader range of film," said Roth.

Among the surprise adult hits of the summer were two quirky, sexy, R-rated comedies--Orion's "Bull Durham," which has grossed more than $46 million, and MGM/UA's "A Fish Called Wanda," whose box office receipts have topped $30 million.

By all accounts, this was an intensely competitive summer, not only because more than 40 major films were released, but also because so many of them were so popular.

"The grosses were spread around much more than in recent years," said John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations Co.

Last summer, for example, Paramount's "Beverly Hills Cop II" dominated the market, with more than $150 million in ticket sales. The summer's other hits trailed far behind, with grosses in the $50 million-$80 million range.

"Theaters playing 'Beverly Hills Cop' may have had a wonderful summer, but for those that weren't it could have been a fair-to-poor summer," said Roth.

Among the big winners in this summer's competition are Paramount, Disney, Fox and Eddie Murphy. The losers include Warner Bros., Universal Pictures, and nearly everyone else who made a sequel.

As the final summer weekend approaches, Paramount and Disney are running neck and neck for the No. 1 place in market position.

Disney burst onto the summer scene with one new face--the animated Roger Rabbit--as well as a couple of more familiar ones, like "Bambi" and young heartthrob Tom Cruise, star of "Cocktail."

For the year to date, Disney has undercut Paramount's traditional reign as No. 1 at the box office. According to Entertainment Data, the Disney distribution arm called Buena Vista held a 23% market share from Jan. 1 through Aug. 21, as compared to Paramount's 15.6% market share.

But with "Coming to America," which has grossed $114.2 million, Paramount demonstrated once again that it has claim on the biggest financial asset in Hollywood today--Eddie Murphy.

"Murphy is the only star that is a slam-dunk at the box office," said one theater owner.

In addition, Paramount was the only studio of the summer to turn a sequel into a blockbuster hit--" 'Crocodile' Dundee II." Through last weekend, the Australian adventure-comedy brought in more than $106.5 million.

"Rambo III" grossed more than $53 million domestically and drew enthusiastic crowds overseas, but theater owners said they were disappointed by the Tri-Star release.

"You've got to believe that this Rambo proved Sylvester Stallone is not bulletproof," said one exhibitor. The second "Rambo" film grossed $144.6 million during its first summer of release in 1985.

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