With the Atlanta Olympics taking up residence in the nation's living rooms for 17 days in the middle of summer, will Americans still venture out to their local multiplexes?
Film distributors are wrestling with that question as they set release schedules for what already promises to be the most crowded movie summer ever. For some, the solution is to counter-program, or release films that target those less likely to be hooked on the Summer Games; for others, the plan is to avoid the July 19-Aug. 4 period altogether.
Hollywood's summer, which begins May 10 with the release of "Twister" and continues through Labor Day weekend, is scheduled to see the release of 53 major-studio films, 12 more than last summer.
Of that total, about a dozen are scheduled to open just before or during the Olympics, but industry insiders speculate that at least some of those will move to less competitive slots later in the year.
"We have not begun to see the shuffling that will take place on the release schedule," said a top-level executive at a national theater chain.
Studio research shows that the Games' core audience is older males, so films targeting women and younger audiences are the ones most likely to surface opposite the Olympics.
"There are ways to take something that seems like a detriment and spin it around and profit by it. Some studio heads will look at that week and say, 'Hey, it's a great time to open a family picture,' " said a national film exhibitor.
"Teenagers are still going to go out and go to the movies," said Nikki Rocco, president of distribution for Universal. "I really don't believe they're going to become couch potatoes for those two weeks."
During that time, Universal Pictures plans to release "The Frighteners," a PG-13, special-effects-laden film starring Michael J. Fox as a supernatural ghost-buster; New Line Cinema is scheduled to release "The Adventures of Pinocchio," a live-action film about the wooden puppet who comes to life starring teen heartthrob Jonathan Taylor Thomas; Buena Vista Pictures (Disney) will release "Kazaam," starring pro basketball star (and U.S. Olympic team member) Shaquille O'Neal, and "First Kid," which chronicles the misadventures of the president's adolescent son, starring Sinbad; MGM/UA plans to release "Larger Than Life," a "feel-good" comedy starring Bill Murray; and Paramount Pictures is scheduled to release "The First Wives Club," a comedy starring Bette Midler, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn.
"You'll see more women's pictures, family pictures, you won't see a lot of male-oriented pictures opening during that time," said Larry Gleason, MGM/UA president of distribution.
"I don't think I'd want to put 'The Chamber' [a courtroom drama based on the John Grisham novel and scheduled for a Christmas release] out at that time," Rocco said. "But with 'Frighteners' I think we stand a good shot."
But several industry insiders are concerned about audiences avoiding movie theaters altogether, especially because this year's Games are in the United States, with many events airing live.
"You have to look at the Olympics as major competition," said Barry L. London, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures' motion picture group. "The Olympics this year will have much more importance on television, with live events rather than the tape-delay situation we saw with Barcelona [in 1992]. And needless to say, if Americans are doing well, the audience will be even stronger."
"The impact varies on where the Games are held, whether people can watch them live or not and whether there are any particular events that really capture the country's imagination," said Bill Kartosian, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners.
"Almost all the studios have done studies on the Olympics and they do affect you differently depending on where they are held in the world," MGM/UA's Gleason said. "The Games in Barcelona did not have as much impact on business as the ones held in Los Angeles."
Although media buys during the Olympics reach larger audiences than usual television fare, the inflated rates for commercial time during the Games force some studios to seek alternatives, executives said.
"Whoever isn't carrying the Olympics certainly has a lot of time available for advertising and you can get some really good deals," Gleason said.
Also, for films with youthful audiences, finding a cross-promotional tie-in--with, for example, fast-food restaurants or soft drink companies--can make an impact on a movie's success, he added.
Meanwhile, studios are carefully scrutinizing one another's release plans, which are still being tinkered with.
"The schedules of all the studios have been moving around dramatically in the last couple weeks," London said. "We're trying to analyze it and find the right window of opportunity for each of our films. The wild card is that nobody knows. It's like trying to play checkers in the ocean: You're trying to move and the pieces are just floating around you. Every time you set something down, something else moves."