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Fall Sneaks

Summer, Part II

A crowded release schedule, lots of action films. That's this fall. Sound familiar?

September 07, 1997|Judy Brennan | Judy Brennan is a regular contributor to Calendar

Summer was just the primer. Welcome to fall, Hollywood's new action movie season.

For months, critics and the news media have bemoaned the barrage of nonstop explosions and special-effects-driven movies. Week after week, studios opened $100-million-plus movies back to back on 3,000-plus screens, throwing all of their marketing muscle toward huge openings in hopes of bringing in blockbuster box-office results. They did it knowing that the numbers could plummet in following weeks because of so much competition.

"Summer now looks like a scene from one of those action movies . . . a blood bath," says one Universal executive. "And guess what? It's about to happen again."

It looked like a blood bath because there were so many action movies that cost so much to produce, market and distribute. Summer has always been the season of action movies, since their target audiences are typically teens and young males who provide plenty of repeat business during the three-month school break. And the number of pictures coming this autumn, some joke, is beginning to look like a summer sequel.

From DreamWorks' first movie, "The Peacemaker," starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, to Warner Bros.' "Fire Down Below" and "L.A. Confidential," to PolyGram's "The Game," Paramount's "Switchback" and "Kiss the Girls," Disney's "Playing God," 20th Century Fox's "The Edge" and Sony's "Starship Troopers" and "The Assignment," fall is jammed with movies pegged as film noir, thriller and drama driven by heavy action sequences.

While production executives shy away from the action stigma, distribution executives have no problem with the "action" selling handle.

Although most studio executives insist fall has always been a strong play period for action pictures, this year the transition from bang-'em-up summer movies to bang-'em-up fall movies seems practically seamless.

Why? The reasons vary. If studio executives didn't feel their pictures were strong enough either in story content or concept, star power or name-brand recognition, they sought the safe harbor of what they thought would be a less competitive period.

Some moved into fall because they were dodging James Cameron's "Titanic"--which prompted all sorts of last-minute mid-summer release juggling--only to see the Fox/Paramount epic moved to a Dec. 19 play date.

Finally, a few pictures are expected to benefit from the launch of the new TV season since their stars are actors on hit shows, such as "ER" (Clooney in "The Peacemaker") and "The X-Files" (David Duchovny in "Playing God").

"In truth, there's probably not one answer for fall being the way it is this year. It's probably a little bit of everything," said Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney's motion picture group.

It was Fox that actually pioneered the fall action season with the Oct. 4, 1985, release of the Arnold Schwarzenegger film "Commando." The picture opened on 1,495 screens to $7.7 million and was considered such a big opening at the time that it prompted other studios to target the season as a new time slot for action releases. Warner Bros. took full advantage, making it the season for Steven Seagal's movies, including his latest, "Fire Down Below." It also happens to be Seagal's last picture under his production deal at Warners (see accompanying story).

"Lately, fall--and November in particular--has been as good as the summer months," said Barry Reardon, head of Warners distribution. "Look at 'Ransom' last year . . . huge [opening to $34 million]. Fall is becoming a huge action season, and it's true that it has worked very well for us."

For "Jackal" producer Jim Jacks, a fall release was the only solution. "Summer was so crowded. To come out the second half of the summer, we would have had to rush so it just wasn't worth it to us."

His film, being released by Universal, will now debut Nov. 14. "We'll have four weeks or so before their movie opens. But we still have another $100-million movie opening the weekend before us, 'Starship Troopers,' plus 'Mad City.' The week after that is 'The Rainmaker.' So you see," he adds, "even in the fall there are big movies opening every weekend. But you can't be afraid of it. You just have to go with the best date you can get."

Plus, it helps to have two marquee stars like Richard Gere and Bruce Willis sell the movie. "It's already starting to look like more movies are opening in the fall than in some of the weeks during the summer," Jacks says.

But to Mitch Goldman, distribution chief at New Line Cinema, a crowded fall still looks better than summer. New Line's "Mortal Kombat Annihilation" is set to open Nov. 21.

"The truth is, it's not just fall anymore. Every season is glutted now because there are too many pictures in the marketplace," Goldman says. "It's just a mixed bag. Art movies used to be in the fall, now they're in the summer and it goes on and on.

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