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THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

Company Town : Forget Studio Excuses for Box-Office Duds--Make Better Movies

December 22, 1995|CLAUDIA ELLER

This year, Hollywood collectively struggled to keep up with the total box-office revenues of 1994. And year-end results will show in fact that this year's expected ticket sales of $5.4 billion will be less than 1% over last year's, the Hollywood Reporter's box-office analyst Art Murphy tells us. You talk to the studio executives who pick the movies audiences see and they all tell you the same thing: It was a really tough year because of "market conditions," meaning the field was overcrowded with movies, and marketing costs bumped up about 20%. It's also true that the cost of talent and production continued to rise to hair-raising levels, making it more and more difficult to make a profit on a movie. But, then, that's not the point.

What about making more movies that the public wants to see?

According to the experts such as Murphy, complaints about market conditions, or for that matter weather conditions (studios often gripe that folks in the East stayed indoors all weekend because of a blizzard), and too many films competing for audiences are "just a defense."

In fact, Murphy says the number of major releases from the studios and the prominent independents this year was pretty much on par with his count for last year of about 300 films.

"People talked about a crowded marketplace. But, when you have a hit film, it doesn't matter. People will climb over snowdrifts to see a No. 1 film," he observes.

This last year was particularly short of movies that had the public buzzing and running to their local theaters.

"Market conditions arrive from the order of collective mediocrity," says Murphy, pointing out that with few exceptions like "Apollo 13," "Batman Forever," "Casper" and Disney's current release, "Toy Story," moviegoers "weren't excited about much" as they were last year, which had such hits as "Forrest Gump" and "The Lion King."

While each of the major studios were guilty of plunking a series of mediocre movies and outright flops into the marketplace, perhaps Paramount Pictures felt the sting of a disappointing year more than others after having come off such a high with "Forrest Gump" last year.

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Talk about a major comedown.

Paramount not only didn't have a $300-million film in 1995 ("Gump" grossed $329.7 million domestically and again that much overseas), it had no $100-million movie and a lot of misses in the second half of the year.

Paramount's biggest money loser was Billy Friedkin's erotic thriller "Jade," which grossed just $9.7 million.

Other bombs were the Jodie Foster-directed "Home For The Holidays" ($15.8 million); "Nick of Time" ($7.8 million); "Vampire in Brooklyn," starring Eddie Murphy ($19 million); "Virtuosity" ($24 million); and don't forget the forgettable "Stuart Saves His Family," starring Al Franken of "Saturday Night Live" and which only managed $911,171.

Paramount had pinned big hopes on its most recent release, "Sabrina," starring Harrison Ford, but the expensive $50-million remake of the 1954 classic that starred Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn and William Holden, only mustered a $5.6-million opening this last weekend. Studio officials are expecting business on the movie to pick up substantially over Christmas, but we'll see.

The studio's most profitable film this year was its summer sleeper "Clueless," an inexpensive comedy starring flavor-of-the-week Alicia Silverstone that grossed $55.8 million. Paramount's other summer release "Congo," a $50-million-plus film version of Michael Crichton's 15-year-old bestseller, was also a surprise hit with $81 million. The only other bright spots on Paramount's year were Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" ($67 million) and "The Brady Bunch Movie" ($46.6 million).

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According to Murphy's domestic distributor rankings, through last week Paramount's market share was at 10.4% and its total box-office gross was just over $500 million, which puts the studio in fifth place behind its competitors. Last year, Paramount's market share was 14.5% with $700 million in total box-office receipts.

"This is post-'Forrest Gump,' " says Murphy, noting that the difference between Disney and Paramount, which each had $300-million-plus films last year with "The Lion King" and "Gump," respectively, is that by year-end, Disney will come close to keeping up its dollar volume of its 1994 record $1-billion intake, where Paramount will not.

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YEAR-END REQUESTS: As we head into the Christmas weekend, it's time for some year-end musings.

First off, can we please, please leave behind in 1995 all of those tired Hollywoodisms that make journalists cringe every time they hear them, which with no exaggeration is every day. You all know what they are: "Are we on the same page?," "At the end of the day. . . . ," "He's a great piece of manpower," "The bottom line is. . . ."

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