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After 'Rush Hour,' Fall's Box-Office Traffic Is Light

Movies: Three other films will make a clear profit, but half of the releases are money losers. Worst sinner is 'Holy Man.'

November 03, 1998|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The profit picture for the fall movie season illustrates the importance of summer and holiday releases to sop up the red ink major studios suffer in off-periods. About half the films released between Labor Day and the end of October will lose money, and only four will make a clear profit.

While the major studios dominate the two prime moviegoing seasons, the independents and studio subsidiaries such as DreamWorks and New Line made hay during fall.

The season's one clear-cut blockbuster was "Rush Hour" which, like Fox's "There's Something About Mary" this past summer, is that rare bird that grosses enough in its U.S. theatrical run to cover its production ($34 million) and marketing costs.

New Line also has pre-sale guarantees from abroad and a potent ancillary future (particularly home video) on the action comedy, making it the fall's single undisputed success.

DreamWorks' computer-animated "Antz" is also a winner. As with the company's Paramount co-venture "Deep Impact," which got to theaters several weeks ahead of Disney's similarly themed "Armageddon," "Antz" proved to be a matter of exquisite timing, arriving ahead of Disney's upcoming "Bug's Life."

With a potent foreign and ancillary life for "Antz," the key profit question is how much the film really cost. DreamWorks claims that the film's budget was about $42 million, but that number is widely doubted in the industry.

Other computer-animated films generally cost more than twice that amount. The "Antz" budget also doesn't include start-up costs for the DreamWorks animation division, which are amortized over several films.

Those costs probably keep "Antz" from crossing into the mega-profit category.

Nonetheless, DreamWorks' streak continues. In addition to solid profit centers such as "Deep Impact" and "Saving Private Ryan"--both co-produced with Paramount--the company also managed to do moderately well with another computer animated feature, "Small Soldiers," during the summer.

Another studio subsidiary, Disney's Miramax had a modest performer in "Rounders" starring Matt Damon, which should eventually recoup its modest investment.

Of the major studios, only Sony made a profit with two low-budget films. The teen thriller "Urban Legend" recouped its production budget from its domestic theatrical run and should bring the studio a good return. "John Carpenter's Vampires," the season's final release, should bring a modest return.

Depending on its video afterlife and any overseas business, Universal could make some money on the low-budget thriller sequel "Bride of Chucky," the studio's only recent release to creep into the black.

A good overseas run on Warner Bros.' "Practical Magic" could also push that fantasy comedy into the profit column.

Absent much foreign appeal, "A Night at the Roxbury," the "Saturday Night Live"-inspired comedy, had a sturdy domestic theatrical showing and should bring Paramount a few dollars in the end.

Of the late fall arrivals, New Line's fantasy comedy "Pleasantville" seems likely to break even but not much more.

Now for the bad news.

Eight nationwide fall releases will not recoup their costs. There were modest losers such as Universal's drama "One True Thing," Disney's "Simon Birch" and Sony's "Apt Pupil."

More serious drains were PolyGram's "What Dreams May Come" and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's "Ronin," both of which had respectable theatrical runs but not enough, even with ancillaries, to recoup substantial production costs ($85 million and $60 million, respectively).

No matter how well Warner Bros.' action film "Soldier" does overseas, recoupment is unlikely on a budget that could be as high as $60 million.

Disney's "Beloved" is a financial loser, particularly because it isn't expected to have strong appeal internationally.

Disney comedy "Holy Man" starring Eddie Murphy, however, has the dubious distinction of being the season's biggest money loser and certainly Disney's worst performer in some time.

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