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Cutthroat Weekend

Three star-powered pictures gear up for a lethal face-off at the box office Oct. 11. Looks like it'll be that kind of season.

September 29, 1996|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

Is Val Kilmer hotter than Chris O'Donnell? Does John Grisham's name always guarantee box-office success? Are Michael Douglas fans eager to see the 52-year-old actor play a grizzled 19th century wild-game hunter? Have audiences forgiven Geena Davis and Renny Harlin for the husband-and-wife team's disastrous last film, "Cutthroat Island"?

For the answers to these questions, which could mean the difference between a smash hit and an ignominious flop, mark Columbus Day weekend on your calendar. That's when three of the fall's biggest potential box-office contenders collide in one of the year's most hotly contested opening weekends. Making their debut Oct. 11 are Universal Pictures' "The Chamber," Grisham's legal drama starring O'Donnell and Gene Hackman; Paramount Pictures' "The Ghost and the Darkness," a man vs. lion saga featuring Douglas and Kilmer; and New Line Cinema's "The Long Kiss Goodnight," which stars Davis and Samuel L. Jackson in a thriller about an amnesiac suburban mom who discovers she's really a CIA assassin-for-hire.

(Several other films, most notably "Michael Collins," the Irish historical drama starring Liam Neeson, also open Oct. 11, but in far fewer theaters than the big three, which will each play on roughly 2,000 screens nationwide.)

It's a high-stakes showdown--the film equivalent of TV's Tuesday night duel between "Mad About You" and "Roseanne," except with a CBS show like "Cybill" also vying for viewers in the same time slot. Unlike TV, new films don't get a chance to build an audience. The box-office momentum goes to the film that opens No. 1.

"We're not going into this date aiming to be No. 2 or 3," vows New Line Chairman Robert Shaye. "We want to be No. 1. 'Long Kiss Goodnight' is the biggest-budget film we've ever made and we're totally committed to opening it as big as possible."

But others see the three-way battle as a prime example of movie industry macho competitiveness gone haywire. "There are many ways to commit hara-kiri in the movie business, but one sure way is to open three big-budget pictures on the same weekend," says one prominent producer. "I'm sure the studio executives are all huffing and puffing now, saying their movie will open No. 1. But let's see who's huffing and puffing after the weekend's over, because somebody is going to suffer."

With film production in high gear at most studios, the fall season has become crunch time--Oct. 11 is just one of several weekends crowded with expensive, star-driven films. Between now and Thanksgiving, moviegoers will have a choice between a full menu of star entrees, including movies featuring Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Bill Murray, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, Woody Harrelson, Anthony Hopkins--even Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny, who team up as stars of the special-effects comedy "Space Jam."

In the past, a hot film could build enough momentum with a strong opening weekend to stay in the weekend box-office Top 5 through Christmas. But this year, with so many star-driven films competing for the same audience, fewer films will enjoy the long run into the holidays that produces a fall-season blockbuster.

To cut through the clutter, studio advertising campaigns have become costlier than ever. Even though "Daylight," Universal's Sylvester Stallone thriller, doesn't open until Dec. 6, the studio got a jump start on its rivals by running a 60-second trailer for the film on the Sept. 2 broadcast of Monday Night Football. Early ads build audience awareness, which is what opens movies. But national TV campaigns don't come cheap. To promote a major studio film this fall, marketing executives will spend an average of $15 million to $17 million on prints and advertising--the bulk of that coming from network TV advertising, which is especially costly in the fall season because of the prime rates networks charge for advertising on their new shows.

The fall movie season is also crunch time for several studios struggling to rebound from a series of summer box-office flops. Among studios feeling the most pressure:

* Sony Pictures: Plagued by a new round of executive turmoil, the snake-bitten studio released another woeful string of expensive losers, led by "Striptease," "The Fan" and "Multiplicity." Even its much-touted "The Cable Guy" was the weakest box-office outing from Jim Carrey since he became a star. The studio's most promising fall contenders are "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and "The Mirror Has Two Faces," which stars Barbra Streisand (who also directed) and Jeff Bridges.

* MGM/UA: With production slowed by financial uncertainties before its sale earlier this year, the studio floundered with such forgettable fare as "Kingpin," "Fled" and "House Arrest." It needs a big boost from its upcoming Bill Murray comedy, "Larger Than Life."

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