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FALL SNEAKS

A More Bountiful Harvest

The fall season, once regarded by the film industry as barren ground, is increasingly being viewed as the time for nurturing sleeper hits.

September 13, 1998|James Bates | James Bates is a staff writer in The Times' business section

At the point when it became obvious that Universal Pictures' "Out of Sight" wasn't going to catch fire at the box office this summer no matter how many great reviews it got, the second-guessing kicked in.

One of the theories of Hollywood pundits was that the George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez crime thriller might have done better as a "fall movie."

The idea that any movie with commercial prospects was best left for release in the fall movie season--that period between Labor Day and early November once viewed as a wasteland for anything with a prayer of making a dent in the box office--was virtually unheard of not that long ago.

Fall has always been the place where studios took a breather, the pause that came after they disengaged from the summer action dogfights and moved into a holding pattern until the year-end holiday splash started just before Thanksgiving.

Fall also is a Miramax time of year, the place for a few smaller movies that might snatch an Academy Award nomination to appear, or for a riskier film that critics love, like "L.A. Confidential," to be released. It can also be the dumping ground for the major studio films that didn't make the cut for the summer season, or when some truly awful movies ("Showgirls," "The Long Kiss Goodnight") try to squeeze out a few dollars amid the lack of strong competition.

Now, a handful of films in the past five years has turned fall into a place viewed increasingly as one where a sleeper hit can potentially flourish, albeit at nowhere near the kind of blockbuster-level numbers the summer and Christmas season produces.

Last year's "I Know What You Did Last Summer," which on the surface seemed like a natural teen summer flick, was an October-released hit.

Two years ago, "The First Wives Club" opened in September and ended up grossing a surprising $105 million at the domestic box office. "Seven" in 1995 also opened in September and grossed $100 million domestically. Other September and October hits in recent years include "In and Out," "Under Siege," "Get Shorty," "Stargate" and "Pulp Fiction."

Although it's mostly a recent trend, a few fall movies in the 1980s managed to do the same thing, notably "Fatal Attraction," in 1987. Then there's the all-time champion, the "Gone With the Wind" for the September-October period: "Crocodile Dundee."

It may seem like ancient history since Paul Hogan was putting shrimp on the barbie, but the $174 million the movie grossed domestically after opening in September 1986 has been a record for 12 years.

Although the release schedule is not as frenetic as during the summer, studios this year will still be averaging two to three new movies in wide release a weekend. Wedged into fall slots include such anticipated studio films as "One True Thing," "Beloved" and "What Dreams May Come."

The performance of some fall films has reinforced the emerging conventional wisdom of film distributors that the business is more of year-round than they've always assumed. Movies like "Titanic" and "Jerry Maguire" did a big chunk of their business in the post-holiday first quarter, which, like the fall, has been viewed as a relatively slow period. That helped refute the theory that big movies can only do substantial business during the summer or the holidays.

"It's nothing more than a theory. I think it's all a lot of hogwash. A good movie can be released at any time," says Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox's Domestic Film Group.

Nonetheless, for studios--and moviegoers as well--fall is loaded with both pluses and minuses. Here are a few:

Plus: You don't have to spend $150 million (and another $50 million on marketing) to save the world from an asteroid or comet.

Fall is mercifully free of big-budget extravaganzas and the nonstop marketing campaigns that assault you for weeks leading up to a movie opening.

Because heads don't usually roll over fall movies, there is a lack of hype and expectation. Still, that doesn't mean the competitive juices aren't flowing.

"You have a lot more adult titles, but pretty much every week a picture is striving to be a big commercial hit as well," says Sony distribution chief Jeff Blake.

Plus: Fall also isn't the time when the success or failure of a film is directly proportional to the number of cheeseburger Happy Meals sold.

Since kids are in school, fall is free from the tie-in hype that comes with every major kids' movie. This year, however, DreamWorks SKG decided to move up its computer-animated "Antz" to Oct. 2 to get a jump on "A Bug's Life," the computer-generated film from Disney and Pixar planned for Thanksgiving.

But don't call "Antz" a movie for children. The studio in its press materials is referring to it now as a "romantic comedy."

Minus: Theaters are emptier.

Business drops off some 40% after Labor Day for obvious reasons: Kids who had nothing to do but go to the movies may still have nothing to do, but at least they are back in school. Families have returned from vacations. High school kids go to Friday night football games.

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