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A Squeeze Play Tags the Summer Box Office : A season of monumental successes--and flops--worries many executives that crowds are shunning mid-range films in favor of a few home-run hits.

August 02, 1994|CLAUDIA ELLER and RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Eller is the Times movie editor and Natale is a free-lance writer

While media attention has centered on this summer's record box-office weekends and such runaway hits as "The Lion King," "Forrest Gump" and "Speed," what has been obscured is how many big expensive movies have been trampled in their tracks.

"There could possibly be a record number of losers this summer," producer Sean Daniel says. "It looks like Shiloh out there."

Among the biggest pools of red ink are the Kevin Costner Western "Wyatt Earp," John Hughes' production of "Baby's Day Out" and Rob Reiner's comedy "North."

And that's just for starters. The list of summer flops includes several other high-profile, high-cost films: "I Love Trouble" starring Julia Roberts; Penny Marshall's "Renaissance Man" starring Danny DeVito; the Billy Crystal comedy sequel "City Slickers II"; and the Eddie Murphy action sequel "Beverly Hills Cop III."

The season's most distressing trend, industry executives say, is the disappearance of movies grossing in the middle range (between $40 million and $75 million). "There was only room for the home runs this summer," Paramount Pictures chairman Sherry Lansing says. "Audiences rejected everything else. We seem to have lost the doubles. And that's sad."

On the other hand, the films that were big were gigantic. There are more movies grossing $100-million-plus this summer than ever in recent memory. So far there are four ("Lion King," "Gump," "The Flintstones" and "Speed") with another potential three or four on their way ("True Lies," "The Mask," "Clear and Present Danger" and "The Client").

Viewers seem to be returning time and again to their favorite films and have no interest in other releases, producer Jerry Bruckheimer says.

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This leaves a big gap between the $100-million blockbusters and the rest of the pack. Whereas in summers past, there were at least nine or 10 movies that grossed $40 million to $75 million, so far this summer, there have been few. The top three or four films in any given weekend are doing between 75% and 90% of the business, Castle Rock Pictures president Martin Shafer says.

"This summer there will probably be eight movies that gross more than $100 million (there were five in '93), but there will be another eight that will lose a lot of money," Warner Bros. distribution chief Barry Reardon says.

The problem, as virtually any industry executive will tell you, is plain and simple: There are too many movies, and they're crashing into one another.

Industry watchers and the decision makers themselves are again questioning the wisdom of squeezing all their movies into the summer rather than in less competitive periods like spring and fall. Universal chairman Tom Pollock decided to pull Meryl Streep's "The River Wild," as well as Jean Claude Van Damme's "Time Cop," and fit them into more comfortable fall berths. "And I think we'll do better with both of them," he says.

The logjam was particularly problematic for family movies. Even though children are available seven days a week in the summer and go to more movies, this year proved that market isn't limitless. Cases in point: Fox's "Baby's Day Out" and Columbia/Castle Rock's "Little Big League." The former played on Hughes' successful "Home Alone" phenomenon; the latter is another in a skein of kid-oriented baseball movies following last year's popular "Rookie of the Year" and "The Sandlot."

Executives and producers admit that in many cases they become overly enthusiastic after test screening their movies. For instance, Shafer says, the previews on "Little Big League" were sensational. But the fallibility of marketing previews is that they don't take the competition into account, industry pundits say. "When you have a screening in March, it doesn't tell you whether your movie can break through as a consumer choice in June or July," says Daniel, citing his own 1993 film, "Hearts and Souls," as one such example.

What none of these family films saw coming was the "Jurassic Park"-type drawing power of "The Lion King," which is expected to gross $275 million. Twentieth Century Fox chairman Peter Chernin says he believes one of the biggest problems for "Baby's Day Out" was that "our release date was July 1," a holiday weekend when five new movies opened.

"Also, in retrospect, we were too close to 'The Lion King,' which devoured all the family movies in its path," Chernin says.

Similarly, Shafer says Castle Rock was eager to have "the first kid's baseball movie out there" with "Little Big League" (to beat out Disney's "Angels in the Outfield").

"Did we want to go opposite 'The Lion King'? No. . . . We got buried and couldn't hang in there," Shafer says. "If we had to do it over again, we'd probably come out in late August."

Whether any of these movies would have performed better in other time slots is anybody's guess.

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