Hollywood film studios, suffering through disappointing ticket sales at the box office this year, are counting more than ever on a strong Christmas season.
"The season is always important, but this year it's assumed even more importance," said Margo Vignola, an entertainment analyst with Salomon Bros.
As in years past, the studios--looking for a potential blockbuster--have saved some of their biggest movies for release in the last six weeks of the year, when cold weather and school vacations help fill theaters.
But this year's Christmas season is particularly important because of a lack of big hits earlier in the year.
Among the most closely watched of the December entries is "Hook," which was released last week by Tri-Star Pictures and cost an estimated $60 million to $90 million.
The remake of the Peter Pan story, starring Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook, grossed a respectable $18 million in its first five days. But industry analysts say the film's financing structure means it has to pull in a staggering $240 million just to break even.
Tri-Star, part of Sony Pictures Entertainment, also has high hopes for "Bugsy," with Warren Beatty as gangster Bugsy Siegel and Annette Bening as his moll. The film opened in just a few theaters over the weekend before being released widely this week.
Columbia Pictures, Tri-Star's sister studio, will release the Barbra Streisand film "The Prince of Tides."
Warner Bros. last week opened "The Last Boy Scout," an action film, but the studio has even greater expectations for "JFK," the controversial Oliver Stone picture about the assassination of President Kennedy.
Chris Dixon, a PaineWebber analyst, predicts many of these films could have trouble because the dour economy is sending people in search of more escapist fare.
His prediction appears to be borne out by the strong openings of three holiday films--"The Addams Family," "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" and "Beauty and the Beast."
Vignola noted that last year most studios already had chalked up big hits before the Christmas season, including "Pretty Woman," "Ghost" and "Dances With Wolves."
"They didn't have to make it at Christmas as much as they do this year," she said.
But so far this year, ticket sales are off 10 percent from last year, according to Variety, a trade publication. Variety estimated that fewer than 1 billion movie tickets will be sold this year--the first time in 15 years sales have dropped below that benchmark.
So far in 1991, "the biggest film is 'Terminator,' and that studio is teetering," Vignola said.
"Terminator 2: Judgment Day," the second film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a futuristic killer robot, was produced by Carolco Pictures Inc. and released last summer. Although the film has already grossed more than $200 million at the box office, Carolco recently said it would cut its staff by about 25 percent.
Another studio, Orion Pictures Corp., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors last week.
Other than "Terminator," the only big hits of summer 1991 were "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," a Warner Bros. film starring Kevin Costner, and "City Slickers" from Columbia Pictures. Other would-be blockbusters, such as Walt Disney Co.'s "Rocketeer" and Columbia's "Hudson Hawk," fizzled.
Mark Manson, an entertainment analyst with Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, said Christmas season sales will have even more psychological impact than economic.
"1991 has been a somewhat disappointing year at the box office, so there is a concern that something significant has changed that has stopped people from going out to the movies," Manson said. A solid Christmas season would dispel that idea.
The most solid entry so far is "The Addams Family," which Paramount Pictures released the weekend before Thanksgiving and already has grossed $73 million. "Star Trek VI," also from Paramount, has grossed $26 million since opening Dec. 6.
"Beauty and the Beast," an animated feature from Disney's studios, has grossed about $39 million.
Manson said "The Addams Family" and "Star Trek VI" are unlikely to have momentum beyond the Christmas holidays, but said they will be successes nonetheless.
" 'The Addams Family' has already proved that it will be extremely profitable for Paramount no matter how long it runs," he said.
Harry Anderson, a Paramount spokesman, said the success of the studio's two big films reflects their appeal to broad audiences, from the large youth market to aging baby boomers.
"Beauty and the Beast" is expected to be a long-term source of profits for Disney because of the lasting appeal of animated films. "It's the kind of movie that will never get old," said Vignola.
But with the exception of "Hook," the remaining holiday films are geared toward older audiences and are therefore riskier.
An example is "For the Boys," a 20th Century Fox film starring Bette Midler that so far has failed to draw crowds.
Noting a similar risk for "The Prince of Tides," Vignola said, "I don't know that Barbra Streisand is the box-office draw that she once was."