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A Summer When Middle Class Ruled the Box Office : Movies: While the highs have not been as high, there have been fewer lows and more films that will take in $35 million or more.

August 29, 1995|RICHARD NATALE RICHARD NATALE..BD: SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even without a hit anywhere close to 1993's $300-million-plus grosser "Jurassic Park" or last year's unbeatable duo of "The Lion King" and "Forrest Gump," 1995 is expected to match 1994's record summer box-office take of $2.2 billion.

While the highs have not been as high this year, there have been fewer lows and more middle-range hits. Last year, when two movies surpassed $300 million and six others grossed more than $100 million, only 14 total took in more than $35 million.

This summer, not even the champions "Apollo 13" and "Batman Forever" are expected to crack $200 million, and only five films will gross more than $100 million, but as many as 25 films will take in $35 million or more. "That's healthier for the business overall," says Disney studio chairman Joe Roth.

As a result, there were surprisingly few casualties in a season overloaded with action and family film. "The glass was definitely half-full," says Tom Sherak, a senior executive at 20th Century Fox.

Though neither was a catastrophic flop, among the biggest disappointments of the summer were the $55-million "First Knight" and the $80-million "Judge Dredd." The former suffered from being the third period adventure released since April--following "Rob Roy" and "Braveheart." The latter, even with Mel Gibson, couldn't compete with other, stronger action fare.

"There seem to be three of everything playing at the same time," says Jeff Blake, head of distribution for Columbia/TriStar. That left few havens in which to release films. "First Knight" needed some distance from the other period pieces, but running it into fall wouldn't have helped, Blake says, because fall will have one of the most crowded film slates ever.

The same is true of family titles such as "The Indian in the Cupboard" and Fox's "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and "Bushwhacked," which did not live up to expectations.

"There used to be a time when there were no family films for a certain period," Blake says. "That's not true anymore."

Still, Roth says, old studio habits die hard. Eager to have a maximum amount of summer playing time, big titles were front-loaded in May and June. Yet, neither "Dangerous Minds" nor New Line's "Mortal Kombat" could have done as much business against the June-July competition, say Roth and Mitch Goldman, New Line distribution chief.

"Dangerous Minds" was helped by the attention from a hit single and soundtrack, "Mortal Kombat" by a careful selling campaign that sought to distance it from its super-violent video game predecessor (the film is PG-13). And both were aided by a less cluttered marketplace.

"Waterworld" similarly benefited from having the action audience pretty much to itself in late July, early August. The Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock films, "Something to Talk About" and "The Net," respectively, drew in women at a time when the female audience was parched.

Comedies, usually a summer staple, were harder to find this year. "Nine Months" and "Clueless" were able to break out, though "Nine Months" also benefited from what one industry wag called "the best $60 ever spent on publicity."

Costs for the top 10 grossers minus "Waterworld" averaged more than $50 million each (if you factor in "Waterworld" it rises to $70 million). Only one of the summer's hits cost less than $20 million: "Clueless," which at $12 million will be wildly profitable.

"Waterworld" will end up as one of the better action performers of the summer at around $85 million domestically. That's good news for Seagram (which bought MCA/Universal earlier this year), because the debt on the $172-million aquatic adventure is being shouldered by the studio's former owner, Matsushita.

According to MCA vice chairman Tom Pollock, "Waterworld" "is the movie we set out to make. But it was made at the wrong price." The Kevin Costner film is expected to gross $150 million overseas, with $50 million or so coming from Japan alone.

Had "Waterworld" come in at its original budget of $100 million, it would have made a profit. (Both "Batman Forever" and "Die Hard With a Vengeance" ended up in that price range, and each will be a hit, with worldwide theatrical grosses of between $300 million and $400 million each.) MCA competitors insist "Waterworld" will lose $40 million on paper; insiders at the studio say it isn't so.

Although the return of the mid-range hit was good news for distributors, it was even better news for theater owners. Six movies opened to grosses of $20 million or better, which means full seats and popping popcorn sales. But because of the fierce competition for space, says Paramount motion picture group president Barry London, several movies never reached their fullest potential. "Even if the movie still was performing, if it was the lowest-grossing movie in the multiplex, it was pulled," he says.

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