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Fresh Ideas Pay Off at Box Office : Movies: Strong openings boost concept films such as 'Speed,' 'The Shadow' and other original ideas, while star vehicles stall.

July 06, 1994|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Concept is selling, stars are not. That's the assessment of what is hot on the big screen by industry pundits a couple of weeks shy of summer 1994's half-way mark.

"Speed" and "The Shadow" are concept movies that had strong openings, although neither had much audience buzz until advertising and/or sneak preview promotions began. "I Love Trouble" and "Wyatt Earp" had a great deal of awareness, due to the supposedly sure-fire presence of, respectively, Julia Roberts and Kevin Costner. Neither bowed to the kind of business that paying $7-million-plus star salaries should guarantee. Even stars in cost-inflated sequels to major hits, like Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal, did not bring home the bacon.

Concepts that appeared original, even if it was a live-action version of an old animated TV series like "The Flintstones" or an original all-animal inhabited animated movie like "The Lion King" caught fire. If the idea was a retread, like "Baby's Day Out" (known as "Home Alone" with an infant), there were few takers.

But that temporary truism is about to be upended, predicts one studio head, as Tom Hanks ("Forrest Gump"), Arnold Schwarzenegger ("True Lies"), Harrison Ford ("Clear and Present Danger") and Jim Carrey ("The Mask") blaze into theaters with both barrels blaring in conspicuous star vehicles. "You ain't seen nothin' yet," says Tom Sherak, 20th Century Fox's executive vice president.

And, if he's right, predictions are that last year's record will be shattered--even without a "Jurassic Park" $346 million in the mix. "It'll certainly come close," forecasts Richard Cook, Disney's distribution chief. One reason is that this year there's less front-loading: The studios usually bring the best wine out first. By mid-July, they're scooping out the dregs. For various reasons, including the fact that such films as Schwarzenegger's "True Lies" weren't ready, the summer will get a back-end boost. That's good for summer and for the year's box office in general.

"Even taking 'Jurassic' into account, the first six months of 1994 are about even with last year," says John Krier of Exhibitor Relations, which tracks box office. "Now we have a chance to pull ahead."

Even so, the Fourth of July weekend was only about 10% behind last year when three major front-loaders, "Jurassic," "Sleepless in Seattle" and "The Firm," were already in theaters. And it was leagues ahead of most other summers.

Three of this summer's films, "Lion King," "Flintstones" and "Speed," have already, or will eventually gross more than $100 million. "Maverick" will come close.

Disney continues to astound itself with its animated blockbusters. Cook never expected to top $100 million with "The Lion King" only 11 days into its national release. He is cautious about quoting the film's upside potential, although the industry consensus is that $250 million is attainable in the United States and Canada alone.

And since schools have just let out, there are two full months of seven-days-a-week business to lift "Lion" to be the year's biggest grossing film. As impressive as those figures seem, with animated films, theatrical box office is just the start.

At the other extreme is the disaster of "Wyatt Earp," a $60- million film, which has grossed only about $15.6 million so far, not even enough to cover its marketing costs. It is Costner's second consecutive disappointment, following "A Perfect World," which did not work domestically although it cleaned up overseas. Why did it fail while "Maverick" will gross more than $90 million? What does that say about the Western genre?

Absolutely nothing. "Maverick" is a brand name from the TV series and also had such stars as Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster. The concept sold, the stars didn't hurt.

"Warners made a mistake releasing 'Wyatt Earp' in summer," says an executive from another studio, trafficking in hindsight. At least marketing-wise, he argues, the three-hour film had better potential as a fall prestige event movie, like "Dances With Wolves." A little more distance from last Christmas' surprise hit "Tombstone," which told the Earp story and grossed about $55 million, would have also been wise.

"Wyatt Earp" illustrates the dilemma of studios promising audiences and exhibitors their biggest guns in summer and/or Christmas and spending the farm to deliver.

"I Love Trouble" is another example, and even more baffling. The $40-million production delivered only $7.5 million in its debut (just under $10 million in five days), which seems inconceivable in a romance-parched summer--and for a film that stars Roberts, one of Hollywood's biggest box-office draws.

Even stranger, it was beat out by "The Shadow" and "Blown Away," neither of which appeared to have as strong a commercial edge. It barely knocked out "Wolf," the Jack Nicholson/Michelle Pfeiffer pairing, which has been the dominant adult (the over-25 audience) title for the summer so far, with about $50 million grossed to date.

The answer again was confusing marketing, says one source close to the Disney romantic film. "Shadow" and "Blown Away" plugged away at the young male audience, "Speed" notwithstanding. Both films topped $10 million for the weekend. "Wolf" went after grown-ups and stayed on their tail. Early ads for "I Love Trouble" indicated a romantic comedy. The trailer sold the film as an action comedy. And the more recent TV campaign changed the emphasis to romantic thriller with shades of Roberts' last film, "The Pelican Brief."

"In doing so, Disney lost Roberts' key female audience and failed to attract males," says a competing studio executive. Cook indicated that the shift over the next week will be back to romantic comedy for "I Love Trouble."

Industry insiders suggest that the other summer casualties all fit into the deja vu category. Films such as "Renaissance Man," "Getting Even With Dad," "Little Big League" and "The Cowboy Way" seemed derivative of other more successful predecessors.

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