YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Box Office Champs, Chumps : The hero of the bottom line was the 46-year-old 'Bambi'

January 08, 1989|LEONARD KLADY

What is was the most successful film of 1988?

"Three Men and a Baby"? "Nightmare on Elm Street IV"? "Bambi"?

You would think "Three Men and a Baby" (from Touchstone, the Disney subsidiary) was the highest-grossing film in domestic release, more than $167 million.

But how about the re-re-re-release of "Bambi," Disney's 46-year-old animated deer tale? It could easily claim the title, based on its gross of $38 million.

"Bambi" involved no production cost to Disney. Back in 1942, the then-princely sum of $2 million was spent on the film--but that's been written off long ago and the ledger books closed. So, when you place its production cost ($0.00) beside its '88 grosses, "Bambi's" ratio for success is frighteningly incalculable.

"Three Men," at a cost of roughly $15 million, works out better than 11-to-1 to the good.

While domestic box-office performance in the age of videocassettes, cable and foreign exhibition is no longer the determining factor for success, it remains a strong indication of profit potential. Certainly, placing production costs against box-office gross provides a more apt reflection of profitability than literal box-office gross.

It used to be an industry rule of thumb that a film needed to gross three times its cost to turn a profit.

Today, no such simple guideline exists. What is undeniable is that very few films are profitable based solely upon what they do at North American movie theaters. Such factors as foreign box office and videocassette sales--unknown or "gravy" items a decade ago--are now the primary forces behind many productions. The brutal fact is that this year fewer than 30 movies will return a profit based upon their domestic box office.

That's 30 among the roughly 120 films released by the majors and several hundred others from independents.

Industry analyst Art Murphy claims that the closest approximation he's willing to make on a film's profitability is to look at North American rentals (the amount returned to the studio after the exhibitor's share) and compare it to the production budget, plus print and ad costs. All things being equal, Murphy claims that if a film can return 40% of costs from domestic theatrical revenue, it's got a good shot at ultimately showing a profit.

When considering the worst performers among 1988, there are a few caveats to note. Several entries--"Distant Thunder," "The House on Carroll Street," "Little Nikita," "A Time of Destiny," "The Deceivers," "And God Created Woman" and "Sweet Hearts Dance"--were not nationally released, thereby boosting their negative potential.

Furthermore, when you consider that it can average between $5 million-$7 million just for prints and ads to open a film across the country, all films which grossed less than that amount deserve special recognition. And that's gross box office, not what's returned to the distributor, which oftens runs a little bit better than 40%.

Or, to take a dark overview, nationally released films have to earn in excess of $15 million just to cover the cost of telling an audience a film exists and to physically have something to show them.

In addition to the major product, there's the "specialized" market which, though smaller than 5% of the national film-going diet, deserves unique mention. 1988 may well be the most lackluster year for alternative and foreign-language films in a decade. Despite the fact that a handful of films performed well, it was a case of great success for the exceptional and oblivion for the overwhelming majority.

All this is, of course, leading to the big picture--an assessment of the relative health of the leading production-distribution companies. The formula is an inversion of ice-skating scoring. Rather than throw out the top and bottom scores, you retain them. So, in this instance, one takes all entries from a company that appear in the top 20, bottom 20 and top 10 specialized list.

For example, Disney had six entries in the top 20 and two in the cellar. First, one totals the revenue from the eight entries, which comes to $592.4 million. Next one divides by the production costs of $128 million and arrives at a quotient of 4.63--a positive healthy figure but not quite 1988's best. Here's how they rate this year:

1. New Line Cinema (2 entries), 6.58 2. Paramount Pictures (5), 4.98 3. MGM (3), 4.78 4. Walt Disney (8), 4.63 5. 20th Century-Fox (3), 3.98 6. Orion Pictures (including Classics) (8), 3.71 7. Warner Bros. (4), 2.79 8. Cannon Entertainment (2), 1.52 9. Universal Films (2), 1.37 10. Tri-Star Pictures (4), .40 11. Columbia Pictures (3), .39 12. Vestron Films (2), .21

United Artists, with no entries on the three charts receives an honorary .007 in 1988 and we're confident with the release of the next James Bond, its quotient will increase next year.


Los Angeles Times Articles