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The Lion King and His Court : 7 Films Are Expected to Pass $100-Million Mark This Summer

August 22, 1994|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With no "Jurassic Park" on the horizon, there was little hope that this summer would match last year's record-breaking $2.1-billion box-office bonanza. But that's not what happened.

There were no dinosaurs this year. But there was a lion named Simba, who grossed well more than $200 million, and a lamb named Forrest--who approached that figure this weekend.

Three other films have hit $100 million and two more should hit the mark by Labor Day, the official end of the 15-week summer cycle that began Memorial Day weekend. All told, summer '94 should inch ahead of last year with an estimated $2.1-billion to $2.2-billion final total.

This is the first summer in which seven movies are expected to exceed $100 million. (There were five each in 1993 and 1989, the two other $2-billion summers.) Those seven films are responsible for about half the movie tickets sold this summer. However impressive these numbers, they're just numbers. They render the audience faceless, ageless and sexless. They don't tell us who went to the movies and how often, or if there was an actual rise in attendance or simply that tickets prices were higher.

Industry analysts Art Murphy of the Hollywood Reporter and John Krier of Exhibitor Relations calculate the season somewhat differently. Both say that ticket prices have remained relatively stable (averaging about $4.14) since last year. Thus, any dollar gain indicates that more tickets were sold. According to Krier, sales this summer should be between 516 million to 530 million tickets, compared to 513 million tickets sold last summer.

Who bought those extra tickets? People who go to the movies went more often, says Murphy. The summer release pattern may have helped. The studios avoided competing head to head by opening higher-profile movies on successive weekends. Week after week a steady stream of films opened. Movie fans didn't have to scrounge around for something new. (It helped that many of the big movies satisfied too.) The infrequent filmgoer made at least one extra visit to theaters, according to Murphy. Every summer, infrequent filmgoers (who see two to six films a year) catch one high-profile film, and usually another at Christmas. This summer they saw at least two--likely "The Lion King" and "Forrest Gump."

"Lion King" was an event even before it happened. Its popularity as a family pleaser was anticipated, if not at such Gargantuan levels. Disney's "unscientific" breakdowns, says a studio spokesperson, indicate that 70% of admissions have been adults--either accompanying a child or on their own. If 30% seems low for kids' admissions, it's because Disney's estimates include a formula that doesn't count repeat visits by kids.

Paramount's oddly titled "Gump" infatuated the public perhaps in a way that no other adult-oriented drama ever has--albeit with more than a dollop of "E.T."-style sentimentality and special effects. (Virtually every one of the 10 top-grossing movies of all time, including "Star Wars" and "Batman," have been "event" entertainments aimed primarily at families or younger audiences.)

"Gump" attracted everyone--teen-agers, adults, males, females, adults from urban and suburban--and has done scads of repeat business.

Early previews had demonstrated the nostalgic music-laden film's wide appeal, especially as a trip down memory lane for baby boomers, one of whom cites it as "My Life's Greatest Hits." No one foresaw the strength of its appeal to other segments of the audience, particularly to teen-agers, according to Paramount Chairman Sherry Lansing.

The title character, played by Tom Hanks, epitomizes teen-agers' sense of awkwardness as adolescents. Says Lansing: "Every kid feels he's not the smartest or the best looking or the best liked." It also worked as an entertaining history lesson. Many teen-agers saw the movie several times, which accounts in part for its amazing resilience at the box office.

Another lucky break for Hollywood--though not for baseball fans--has been the strike. Arriving in August, when box office begins a steady descent as schools gradually reopen, the test of wills between baseball owners and players helped stem the erosion. "Gump" got a late summer push from the millions of males who never got off their duffs while the season was going.

So did Paramount's early August release, "Clear and Present Danger," starring Harrison Ford, which hit theaters just as the strike was announced--in part explaining why it's expected to out-gross its Tom Clancy predecessor, "Patriot Games."

Females also flocked to "Gump," even as the film industry continues to under-exploit that half of the population. Lacking a "Sleepless in Seattle" this year, women discovered "The Client" and even "Speed." A rare direct attempt to reach women, "I Love Trouble," didn't work, says one studio chief, because the target audience didn't buy a 26-year-old Julia Roberts falling for Nick Nolte, a man more than twice her age. That's a male fantasy.

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