With one weekend to go before the summer movie season ends, there's a sigh of relief in Hollywood: In the midst of a nationwide recession, it wasn't a bad summer.
But was it a good summer?
That depends on how you figure.
In conversations with industry leaders on both sides of the screen, assessments of the summer are subdued.
Thanks to summer, the movie business has caught up after a slow spring to within about 8% of where overall box-office grosses were this time last year. Still, the number of tickets sold this year is estimated to be 4% off 1991's pace.
Box-office results from Memorial Day to Labor Day--the time of year when ticket sales are at their peak--are expected to make this summer the third best on record. Estimates from a variety of sources place the overall gross box office figure at somewhere below $1.8 billion for the United States and Canada, but ahead of last summer's $1.6 billion. This summer is again off the pace of the all-time record summer of 1989, when the original "Batman" opened and slightly more than $1.8 billion worth of tickets were sold.
But comparing this summer with 1991 is problematic because the season this year includes one more week of grosses. If that week--the one that includes the upcoming Labor Day weekend--is subtracted, there would be virtually no difference between this summer and last.
The season's grosses have been fueled by such popular $100-million-plus theatrical attractions as "Batman Returns," "Lethal Weapon 3" and "Sister Act," as well as "A League of Their Own," which is expected to cross that mark soon. The summer also received an additional boost from a group of lesser-grossing major hits, including such star-driven movies as Paramount Pictures' "Patriot Games" with Harrison Ford and "Boomerang" with Eddie Murphy, as well as Warner Bros.' "Unforgiven," directed by and starring Clint Eastwood.
By comparison, three films surpassed $100 million last summer: "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and "City Slickers." And the rest of that summer's Top 10 grossing movies generated less business than this year's Top 10.
On the downside, summer 1992 has seen a substantial number of box-office disappointments, a euphemistic term used to describe movies that don't measure up to the exaggerated expectations of advance publicity and word of mouth.
Among many, the low-budget "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (which has grossed $14 million to date) and a reissue of Walt Disney's classic "Pinocchio" ($18 million to date) simply failed to generate wide or continuing consumer interest, despite what appeared to be their apparent commercial appeal. On the other hand, two high-budgeted movies fared poorly as well. The sequel "Honey, I Blew Up the Kid" has grossed $53 million, while the Tom Cruise vehicle "Far and Away" has brought in $57 million--no small sums. But both did nowhere near the amount that the producers had hoped for. Expectations were also higher than proved to be the case for the Brian De Palma thriller "Raising Cain" (grossing $18 million), the Damon Wayans comedy "Mo' Money" ($37 million) and the black comedy "Death Becomes Her" ($46 million), starring the trio of Goldie Hawn, Meryl Streep and Bruce Willis.
The summer produced only one moderately successful action picture, TriStar's "Universal Soldier" with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, while such murder genre films as "Raising Cain" and "Whispers in the Dark" bombed. Among the art-house movies, "Howards End" played strongly all summer, and the ranks have increased lately with the openings of "Enchanted April," "A Brief History of Time" and "Mistress."
New Jersey-based Loews Theatre chain chairman A. Alan Friedberg asked, "How many businesses would be happy to see an erosion of their business of only 8% in the midst of a widespread recession? If we were not in a recession, with the same movies we had, we might have had an even stronger summer. To say this is your third best under these circumstances isn't so bad."
"Few people expected the summer to produce a record," said John Krier, the owner of Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., which tracks box-office data. "It's been a bit disappointing, especially considering this summer includes an extra week."
Krier said the fast box-office fade of the hits contributed to the flatness. He said Warner Bros. saturated the market with such films as "Batman Returns" by opening it on more than 2,800 screens--a number that covers nearly every community in the United States and Canada. "Everyone had a chance to see it in its first weeks," he said. And repeat business was minimal.
Summer fell into a usual pattern with most of the hits coming before the July 4 holiday, Krier said. After that, the dog days set in.
Indeed, late summer hits usually are a rarity. The few recent examples were the hugely popular "Ghost" in 1990, last year's "Hot Shots" and the current "Unforgiven."