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Shoot-Out at the Box Office : Hollywood's awash in money; the upcoming movie budgets are off the charts; what does it all mean? It's action summer!

Tomorrow: Merchandising and the movies.

May 20, 1990|PAT H. BROESKE

It's become a Hollywood tradition to roll out the biggest guns during the summer. This year is no exception--except that the guns are even bigger than usual.

Coming soon to a theater near you: More than half a dozen sequels to monster hits--including "Another 48 HRS.," "Die Hard 2" and "RoboCop 2." Plus, some heavy-duty non-sequels--notably, "Dick Tracy," "Days of Thunder" and "Total Recall." They'll all be accompanied by tenacious and expensive marketing efforts aimed at pulling you into theaters.

From now through Labor Day, box-office receipts will account for an estimated 40% of the year's grosses. So, it is no coincidence that the summer's heavy-duty titles are mostly action/special effects-oriented, boasting some of the biggest stars in the business--with an aim towards kids, teens and young adults.

At the same time, Hollywood isn't betting exclusively on the young. Coming off the success of such adult-oriented hits as the Oscar-winning "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Hunt for Red October," major distributors will respond to adult tastes with titles including Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues," about a New York trumpet player, and "Presumed Innocent," the screen adaptation of Scott Turow's best-selling courtroom thriller.

But the attention, inevitably, focuses on the action films and stars, not to mention dazzling budgets. Consider: The collective cost of the budgets of a dozen pictures, boasting some of the biggest price tags, totals between $350 and $400 million. That figure doesn't include marketing costs.

20th Century Fox's "Die Hard 2," which has had a troubled production, is said to be costing about $60 million. Tri-Star Pictures' special effects-laden science fiction saga "Total Recall" may run up a higher price tag--perhaps as much, according to some sources, as $70 million. Paramount Pictures' racing drama, "Days of Thunder," is said to have been clocked at $50 million--and still racing.

"I keep hearing about all this money being spent, and I'm stunned," admits a marketing executive at a studio where the top summer film cost less than $40 million. "You ask yourself, 'How much is too much?' "

The answer in today's Hollywood economy might be: Too much is never enough. Coming off a record year at the box office, the motion picture industry is awash in money.

So, consider (as most of Hollywood is) the possibilities of the big returns on the huge budgets:

* The total domestic box office last year was $5.1 billion. (The domestic take consists of U.S. and Canadian ticket sales.) Of that, $2 billion--about $500,000 more than most industry analysts predicted--came from last summer's box office receipts. During the startling summer of 1989, five movies passed the magic $100-million mark.

Led by "Batman," and its record-breaking ticket sales of $251.1 million, the others were: 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" ($197.1 million); "Lethal Weapon II" ($147.2 million); "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" ($130.1 million) and "Ghostbusters II" ($112.4 million).

* Already this year, domestic grosses are in excess of $1.5 billion, compared to nearly $1.4 billion at this same time last year, reports Art Murphy, veteran box office analyst for the trade paper Daily Variety. "In April, alone, box office jumped more than 45% from a year go," says Murphy.

"The market on the whole has shown the ability to expand," says Barry London, Paramount Pictures' motion picture group president in charge of distribution. London cites the $100-million-plus performances of the four spring releases, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" ($109.5 million), "The Hunt for Red October" ($105.4 million), "Pretty Woman" ($100.5 million), and "Driving Miss Daisy" ($100 million). (Released last fall, the Oscar-winning "Driving Miss Daisy" did not open wide until early this year.)

"That's already an enormous figure for one year," enthuses London, adding, "so, who knows what the summer could bring?"

Especially considering that the upcoming crop--while seemingly without a dominating film like last summer's "Batman"--has what various analysts feel are 10 to 12 potential hits. This includes the much talked-about "Dick Tracy," with Warren Beatty and Madonna. Conjecture about whether the no-nonsense detective can dominate the box office the way "Batman" did has met with some skepticism. Both are taken from the comics, but Tracy--unlike Batman--isn't as familiar to young people. Disney strategists are currently working to counter that with a big marketing campaign that's just beginning to roll.

Action films certainly seem to have the highest profile at this point, but there are also a number of comedies, family films and "serious" titles due out. No one is discounting their potential, based on last summer's surprises in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," "Dead Poet's Society" ($94.5 million) and Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" ($27.1 million). "It's going to be some summer," predicts John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations, which provides industry news to theater owners.

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