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THE MOVIES : THE CLASS OF '90 : Handicapping Hollywood: There's something different about this year's summer films

May 27, 1990|JACK MATHEWS | Mathews is The Times' film editor

Until recently, it was pretty easy to handicap a Hollywood summer. With the younger teen-agers on vacation and get-out-of-our-hair allowance money at an all-time high, you could look at the schedule, pick out the films loaded with special effects and there would be the likely blockbusters.

Then you'd scan the list for airhead sex comedies, gory slasher films and feature-length rock videos to see what the date-night crowd would be up to.

Finally, you'd set aside that lonely title--maybe two--that was clearly aimed for thinking adults, and you'd say to yourself, "Well, there may be something for me"--and definitely something for the bottom of the box office chart.

That's all changed. With more and more of America's urban school districts on year-round schedules, the theater owners' pool of repeat attenders has been seriously dimin-ished, and thanks to the increasing moviegoing habits of middle-aged Baby Boomers, Hollywood has begun rethinking its summer menu.

Last year, "Batman" was king of the season, and yes, it was thanks to the same age group that made "Star Wars," "E.T." and Clearasil kings of earlier seasons. But there were a lot of films dawdling on the summer chart that didn't figure to be there. "Field of Dreams" opened in the early spring and played all summer long. "Dead Poets Society" opened amid mild expectations and became a $90-million smash. Spike Lee's controversial "Do the Right Thing" raised--of all things--social issues and made money at it. And the colossal business done by "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" removed the Family Movie from the endangered species list.

The video revolution of the '80s changed America's moviegoing habits and forced the film industry into a more responsive mode for the '90s. Just five years ago, the major studios were devoted to making movies for children or young adults--for release yearlong, not only in summer. For a film to be made, it had to have home-run potential at the box office. Now, with video sales promising additional revenues, the studios can afford to lower their first-run expectations and target movies for smaller audiences.

The upshot of all this is that it is difficult to scan a summer- release schedule and say with any certainty which films will dominate business. It is still wise to bet on sequels to previous hits, but the disappointing returns a year ago for episodes of "Indiana Jones," "The Karate Kid," "Ghostbusters" and "Star Trek" suggest that sequels may no longer be the sure things they were throughout the '80s.

Among the many sequels on tap this summer, a couple will do elephantine business. "Die Hard 2" and "RoboCop 2" are both follow-ups to hard-action hits of a couple of years ago, and the memory of those surprisingly fine movies will undoubtedly heighten interest. Bruce Willis found his niche as an action star in "Die Hard" (and as the voice of a sardonic baby in "Look Who's Talking"). "RoboCop" worked no less a miracle than establishing a new live-action comic-book hero.

Eddie Murphy's popularity has survived a series of horrible movies, but his return to the role that made him a star--playing Nick Nolte's reluctant sidekick in "48 HRS."--makes "Another 48 HRS." another sure thing.

Despite the rapid falloff of business for "Back to the Future II" last Christmas, the third and final episode of Robert Zemeckis' time-warp series, even in its Western setting, will pack fans in for a while. And whether it's a remake, a sequel or a $50-million coincidence, "Days of Thunder" puts Tom Cruise on an- other fast track toward "Top Gun" grosses.

Other sequels include "Gremlins 2," "The Exorcist III," "Young Guns 2" and "The Two Jakes"--none of which figures to be as popular as the original.

The biggest question mark of the season hangs over Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy." The film, which has been in the works at one studio or another for 10 years, was finally made by Disney / Touchstone, and comparisons to "Batman" are inevitable. Like "Batman," "Dick Tracy" was adapted from a comic-book hero born before the beginning of World War II--decades before the conception of the MTV generation upon whom today's big- budget films depend.

As comic strip characters, Batman always seemed more fantastic and was more broadly appealing than Dick Tracy, a detective whose walkie-talkie wristband is pretty lame stuff in this high-tech era. It is highly likely that "Dick Tracy" will be a better movie than "Batman," at least for the adult moviegoers who have been returning in droves to the summer market, but goodness and high grosses are often unrelated.

The 1990 summer schedule is loaded, in fact, with films that hold promise for more-discriminating ticket buyers. Novels and nonfiction books provided source material for a host of adult-theme films. Among them:

Alan J. Pakula ("All the President's Men") directs the adaptation of Scott Turow's "Presumed Innocent," with Harrison Ford playing an assistant district attorney on trial for the murder of colleague Greta Scacchi.

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