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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

Other studio executives were trafficking in 20/20 hindsight about such disappointments as "The Cowboy Way" starring Woody Harrelson, "Wyatt Earp" and "I Love Trouble." Several of the non-performers, which also included sequels to "City Slickers" and "Beverly Hills Cop," looked like sure bets. All of these movies were expected to do far better than they did at the box office.

"Sequels haven't been working for the past year," Reardon says. And star vehicles can sometimes work better at other times of the year. Paramount's 1993 movie "Indecent Proposal," starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore, grossed more than $100 million, and it was released in the spring.

But the nature of the business is for studios to bring out their big guns in summer, because between Memorial Day and Labor Day the industry racks up 40% of its annual box-office revenues.

But losses can be huge, too.

Unless "Wyatt Earp" performs substantially better overseas than it did at home--which was the case with Costner's last domestic dud, "A Perfect World"--Warner Bros. stands to lose a good portion of its reported $60-million investment in the film. "Earp's" ultimate $25-million U.S. gross will not cover even its additional marketing expenditure.

Marketing costs, particularly high in the competitive summer season, can range from $12 million to $30 million, depending on the success of a particular movie. And a studio only retains about half of any film's box-office gross; the rest remains with the theater owner.

At least "Earp" has Costner as a drawing card for video and foreign release, a factor that could also ease some of the pain for other summer losers such as "Cop III," "City Slickers" and "I Love Trouble."

But box-office watchers say an expensive family film like "Baby's Day Out," with no box-office names, has little hope of recouping its cost from other outlets based on its miserable performance at home. Fox's Chernin admits, "We'll lose some money on the movie," but nonetheless insists that "Baby's" foreign potential could be "quite good" because "all the foreign exhibitors really like the movie. And (John) Hughes is a big name overseas."

Another expensive family-movie underachiever is the $40-million "North" starring Elijah Wood, which is Reiner's first flop. Shafer says Castle Rock has no money in the movie (which has only been in release two weeks) because it was financed by its domestic distributor, Columbia Pictures, which paid for a small portion of the budget and all marketing, and New Line Cinema, which will probably recoup its investment because it has domestic video rights and sold off foreign rights before the film went into production.

Other movies that will potentially be a bottom-line drain include Disney's "I Love Trouble" and Universal's "Cowboy Way." Unless they perform extremely well overseas or in video, each could lose between $8 million and $14 million, sources say.

Pre-sales and deals in which studios sell off partial foreign rights to films act as protection when a movie doesn't perform up to snuff, as with Universal's "The Shadow" and Disney's "Renaissance Man," minimizing the impact of the losses.

The summer relay isn't over yet. "Traffic won't clear up until late August," Reardon says. "About five or so films will do business. The rest will fall by the wayside."

It's yet to be seen if moviedom's decision makers will rethink their competitive postures and learn something from this summer.

Nonetheless, the hits will keep coming. And so will the losers.

Box Office Busts

These nine summer movies were supposed to bring in a flood of paying customers, but instead they were swept aside by the season's runaway hits.

ApproximateGross to Title / distributor budget date "Wyatt Earp" (Warner Bros.) $60 million $23.2 million "Beverly Hills Cop 3" (Paramount) $50 million $41.1 million "Baby's Day Out" (Fox) $48 million $13.7 million "The Shadow" (Universal) $47 million $28.6 million "I Love Trouble" (Disney) $45 million $28 million "North" (Columbia) $40 million $6 million "Renaissance Man" (Disney) $40 million $23.4 million "City Slickers II" (Columbia) $40 million $40.5 million "The Cowboy Way" (Universal) $35 million $19.3 million

Source: Box office figures from Exhibitor Relations Co.

Researched by Calender staff

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