For weeks, executives at Walt Disney Studios have been talking up the studio's spider thriller "Arachnophobia" as the summer's likeliest sleeper hit. At the same time, executives over at Paramount Pictures were boasting that their romantic fantasy "Ghost" was the dark horse that would lead the way.
Score one for Paramount. "Ghost," which had a one-week running start on "Arachnophobia," shot to the top of the box-office chart in its second weekend, dropping 20th Century-Fox's "Die Hard 2" to second place and out-grossed "Arachnophobia" $12.5 million to $8 million.
The jury is still out on whether "Arachnophobia" will build its audience through word-of-mouth--the critics gave it much higher marks than filmgoers polled after opening-night screenings--but "Ghost" is definitely on its way to being one of the summer's highest earners.
In the wake of "Ghost's" surprisingly strong second weekend (it actually increased business 3% over the previous weekend), industry analysts were saying moviegoers were eager for something besides boys-night-out, heavy artillery action-adventures.
"Ghost," a sentimental romantic fantasy starring Patrick Swayze as the ghost of a corporate banker who sticks around after his murder to protect his true love (Demi Moore), took in $32 million in its first 10 days. Paramount executives attribute the film's early success to counterprogramming.
"We had originally announced the film for a July 27 release, but when we sensed there was a perceptual void in the marketplace, in regard to female viewers, we jumped the film's release by two weeks," says Barry London, Paramount Pictures' motion picture group president in charge of distribution.
Meanwhile, over at Walt Disney Studios--home of the last major movie with heavy female appeal, "Pretty Woman"--executives were dismissing industry perceptions of "Arachnophobia's"$8 million weekend performance as a disappointment.
From Disney's Touchstone Pictures, the "thrill-omedy"--as it's been billed--grossed $10.4 million between Wednesday and Sunday.
"We're pleased with that," said Dick Cook, president of distribution for the company's Buena Vista Pictures Distribution Co. "We've said, from the beginning, that this is a word-of-mouth movie. Not that long ago, $8 million was considered a terrific opening. Now, it seems everyone's looking for instant gratification."
With a nod to the studio's "Pretty Woman," which opened in late March with $11.2 million ("That wasn't a gigantic, record figure," said Cook), and has since earned more than $160 million, he added, "We expect a nice, long run. We believe we have something that's different from everything else that's out there."
Until recent weeks, the summer has been dominated by macho action movies that opened big and then began to fizzle. Which is why, suddenly, all industry eyes are on titles with a "difference."
"After a run of action pictures, the public is welcoming a change," said John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations, which provides services to movie exhibitors. "The expectations were so high this summer. Maybe, there was too much hype."
For that reason, some industry analysts--including Krier--were startled by the weekend performance of Tri-Star Pictures' "The Freshman." In release at only six theaters in Los Angeles and New York, the quirky comedy--about a young student (Matthew Broderick) who finds himself working for a crime figure (Marlon Brando, parodying his "Godfather" role)--played to SRO crowds, earning a startling $34,312 per screen (for a total of $205,876).
The film widens to more than 1,000 screens on Friday, and studio officials are guardedly optimistic.
"We've always believed in this movie. That's why we wanted to give it a careful send-off, with a platform (limited release)," said Buffy Shutt, president of marketing for Columbia and Tri-Star." Everything moves so fast in the summer. Sometimes you have to fight to find some breathing space."