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Now, There Are Bigger Sharks in the Water Every Summer

Studios are desperately trying to avoid a bloodbath next year when a glut of blockbusters will try to eat each other alive.

August 18, 1996|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

Sitting in his office on a hot day in July, Joe Roth was brooding about summer--the summer of 1997.

"You've got 'Lost World,' 'Batman and Robin' and 'Speed 2,' " the chairman of Walt Disney Studios says, barely pausing for breath as he goes along. "Then there's 'Alien 4,' 'Starship Troopers,' 'Men in Black.' "

When he stops for a second, you try to help him by throwing out a title. "No, no, I think I got 'em all," he says. "There's the Harrison Ford film, 'Air Force One,' and 'Face Off,' 'The Fifth Element' and 'Titanic.'

"And who knows about the two volcano movies? Even if only one of them ends up in the summer, you've got 12 movies with an average negative cost of $100 million aimed at basically the same demographic--young men under 25--all competing for the same 12 weeks of summer."

Roth says the film he'd normally put out in July, an action film called "Con Air," is now slated for March. "It's just too crowded. They're going to eat each other alive."

Roth isn't the only doomsayer out there. Facing the prospect of a traffic jam of escapist fantasies, other studio executives are using phrases like "blood bath" and "insanity." With so many potential blockbusters jockeying for position, look for next year to be the Endless Summer, a big-bang moviegoing season that begins as early as March and lasts past Labor Day.

With film production booming and the quest for $100-million blockbusters never-ending, it's no surprise that the peak moviegoing months of summer have become more crowded each year. But what's really striking is how early Hollywood's Summer Games have begun. It's only August, but most studios are already staking out key release dates, preparing marketing campaigns and securing soundtrack deals.

"The Lost World," Steven Spielberg's much-anticipated sequel to "Jurassic Park," doesn't start shooting until next month, but producers booked lab time at Industrial Light & Magic, the digital-effects powerhouse, last January. Tie-ins for toy merchandising have already been made--Universal, the studio releasing "Lost World," recently held a fashion show for potential product licensees of prototype apparel from the film. And 20th Century Fox's "Volcano" just started shooting last month (its unofficial ad line: "L.A. Blows"), but filmmakers have already sent footage to the studio's marketing department for a teaser trailer that could run during World Series telecasts.

"We're all thinking 18 months to two years ahead--in the movie business you have to see that far ahead," says Buffy Shutt, president of marketing at Universal Pictures. "Movies take a long time to make and have to open at the right time, so you can't stockpile your product."

But it's never too early to rev up the hype machine. "We're already starting to tantalize exhibitors with what we've got for next summer," says Tom Sherak, Fox's senior executive vice president of marketing and distribution. "I'm starting to whisper in their ear--' "Speed 2" is coming.' And you know what? They're already asking, 'When's "Independence Day II" coming?' "

And how does Sherak reply? "I tell them what any good salesman says--it can't come a minute too soon."

*

The Endless Summer began on June 20, 1975, with "Jaws." Released on 750 screens simultaneously across the country, it was the first major-studio film promoted through the use of national TV advertising. In the past, studios had platformed movies, opening them in selected theaters, then expanding the number of screens as interest in the film built. But with TV ads airing nationwide, the emphasis quickly shifted from word-of-mouth momentum to opening-weekend hoopla.

In the 1980s, both the movies and the marketplace got bigger, as a boom in multiplex theaters paralleled the rise of mass audience summer action and fantasy films. In 1975, there were 15,000 theater screens in America. Today, there are 28,000, allowing films like "Independence Day" to play on nearly 3,000 screens simultaneously.

In Hollywood, you follow the money, and the big money comes from summer moviegoing. Thirteen of the Top 15-grossing films of all time opened in the summer. With kids out of school, eager for thrills, studios don't have to rely on weekends for peak business. As top action producer Jerry Bruckheimer puts it: "In the summer, every night is a Saturday night."

At the time of "Jaws," summer moviegoing accounted for roughly 32% of the year's business. Today for a studio with a summer hit, it can represent 60% of the year's business.

That percentage has nearly doubled, in part, because summer itself has expanded. Until the late 1970s, with East Coast colleges in session until late June, the biggest summer films didn't arrive until the weeks preceding the Fourth of July. But in 1977, "Star Wars" opened in 35 theaters on Memorial Day weekend and was such a sensation that it was in 1,000 theaters before the end of June.

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