The Fright Before Christmas

Some studio executives are having a recurring Christmas nightmare: Not a creature is stirring in movie theaters – not even a mouse.

The gnawing question is whether audiences will return to theaters during the holiday season – after a tepid spring, a lackluster summer and a dismal fall – or whether the last six weeks of the year will be as silent as the night before Christmas.

The adult viewers that studios chase with serious films during the holidays are the people most hurt by the economic recession. And even if five of the 15 wide-release holiday films become hits, studio revenues from the film rentals will likely add up to just $300 million.

With half the Christmas releases priced north of $30 million – and TV advertising expenditures alone said to be about $150 million between Thanksgiving and Dec. 31 – that’s not enough.

“We’ll know a lot more about [the state of] the business after the Christmas season – if it’s the films or the recession,” says Barry London, Paramount Pictures prexy. “There are no more films than normal. But will the market expand enough?”

“I wish I knew,” says Fox chairman Joe Roth. “You can spin any scenario you want. My guess is that escapist fare will do well. My real concern is for the overall serious nature of the Christmas films, including my own.”

The bright spot is that many of the Christmas films have been seen by studio execs and are generating uncommonly high praise – so much so that an anomaly has occurred: Rival execs are actually praising their competitors’ movies.

Key to success

“What we have this Christmas is a number of great filmmakers with unique stories to tell,” says Mark Canton, chairman of Columbia Pictures, “and there’s a sense of rooting for one another. It’s about time. It’s going to take that kind of concerted attitude and management for us to succeed in the ’90s.”

“The product is there,” agrees Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who sees a potential for this being the biggest holiday season in the past five years.

Among the directors contributing at this Christmas are Steven Spielberg (“Hook”), Martin Scorsese (“Cape Fear”), Barry Levinson (“Bugsy”), Lawrence Kasdan (“Grand Canyon”) and Oliver Stone (“JFK”).

There is also an impressive array of A-list box office actors on tap: Kevin Costner in “JFK” (see story page 6); Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams and Julia Roberts in “Hook”; Barbra Streisand in “The Prince of Tides”; Bette Midler in “For the Boys”; and Steve Martin in both “Father of the Bride” and “Grand Canyon.”

The wide popularity of Tri-Star’s “Hook,” Paramount’s “The Addams Family” and Disney’s animated “Beauty and the Beast” is an almost foregone conclusion among industry insiders. Also getting high commercial marks based on early screenings are Warners’ “The Last Boy Scout,” starring Bruce Willis, two sequels – Paramount’s “Star Trek VI” and Universal’s “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West” – Columbia’s “Prince of Tides” and Disney’s remake of “Father of the Bride.”

One studio chief sees as many hits on the high end as ever, but even more soft performers than usual.

If that prediction comes true, and the downward trend of recent months continues, there could be trouble. Summer ’91 b.o. was down 11% from last year, and grosses since the end of summer have been off 12% to 13% from the previous year. Even a passable Christmas with four or five genuine hits out of the 15 wide release films would still leave 1991 grosses 6% to 8% percent behind 1990’s total of $5.02 billion.

Slight upturn?

A slight upturn may already be in progress. “It’s not all bad news,” says TriStar chairman Mike Medavoy. “Last weekend was up 6% from the same week a year ago.”

Canton also points to John Hughes’ “Curly Sue,” which got off to a shaky start but actually increased its business 7% in its second weekend.

The wild card in the group is TriStar’s “Hook,” the megabudget spectacular that opens Dec. 11. Industry insiders expect the film to open huge, with anticipation reinforced by an advertising blitzkrieg.

“‘Hook’ is an event movie,” says one studio chief. “If it’s good, it will make people want to see other movies. If they don’t like it, it’s bad for business, because when event movies don’t work, audience expectations are dashed.”

But an average Christmas – five hits – would still leave 10 big-ticket films in the dust.

“Even if Disney’s ‘Father of the Bride’ is a big hit, that won’t offset what was lost on ‘Billy Bathgate,'” says one studio chief. “If ‘Bugsy’ isn’t a big hit, no matter how big ‘Hook’ is, [TriStar] won’t be able to cover it.”

Another concern that has become almost endemic is the logjam of films appealing to a similar audience debuting in close proximity. Even in up economic periods, this can cause cannibalization of business, despite the expected audience expansion and staggered weekend-by-weekend openings. With new product shadowing each potential hit, there could be serious drop-off in second and third weekends.

The sheer number of “family entertainments” opening around Thanksgiving – “My Girl,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Addams Family,” “An American Tail” sequel and “All I Want for Christmas” – could doom one or two to failure or, at the very least, short shelf life. With “Hook” debuting a mere two weeks later, the problem is aggravated.

Similarly, a clump of “adult” movies for audiences older than age 25 are all going into wide release around Christmas; that also portends disappointment for the less visible or unusual-sounding title. In that group are “Prince of Tides,” “Grand Canyon,” “Bugsy” and “JFK,” as well as several limited-release titles such as “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” “Naked Lunch” and “Rush.”

‘First-choice business’

“There are too many similar titles in what’s getting to be a first-choice business,” says an executive at one of the major studios. The third-or fourth-choice films are assured a fast exit.

Katzenberg counters that “The Little Mermaid,” the $83 million grossing animated hit of two years back, did more than half its business after Jan. 1.

“All I Want for Christmas” and “My Girl” are cited as possible casualties in the family entertainment group, if for no other reason than their audience recognition is less potent than for Disney’s highly regarded “Beauty” and Universal’s “American Tail” sequel.

Canton disagrees about “My Girl,” calling it a potential sleeper precisely because it is non-formulaic. He says complaints about the demise of the film’s Macaulay Culkin character are exaggerated and have been taken out of context.

A competing studio executive says the Culkin brouhaha is beside the point. “Culkin is not a star. In ‘Home Alone,’ the film was the star.”

Fox moved up its $45 million musical “For the Boys” to Thanksgiving to get out of the way of the other adult entertainments. Not only will that film and Universal’s “Cape Fear” be the only pics in the early market for an older audience, but by getting out so early,”‘ For the Boys” will have done about 85% of its business by the time the Christmas group of adult films enters the market,” says studio distrib chief Tom Sherak.

Of the Christmas releases, the one causing the most concern is TriStar’s $40 million “Bugsy.” The biopic about the mobster Bugsy Siegel arrives on the heels of Disney’s disappointing gangster epic “Billy Bathgate,” which had a similar upscale pedigree.

Not surprisingly, TriStar is downplaying the gangster element, emphasizing the story’s romance and taking advantage of the real-life relationship between co-stars Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. Medavoy says the film is “funny, brilliantly acted and directed. This is the guy who invented Las Vegas. That’s what it’s about.”

“Bugsy” faces stiff competition. “Prince of Tides” has been riding a wave of high anticipation for months and has been widely previewed. “JFK,” says Warners marketing exec Rob Friedman, “is the greatest murder mystery of our time, stars Kevin Costner and also stars [helmer] Oliver Stone.” It is also likely to stir a great deal of controversy.

The other contender, “Grand Canyon,” also faces visibility problems. “We’re selling it as an important movie,” says Sherak. Whether it becomes an event or not, depends on the movie.”

And much of that will depend on reviews. Critical acceptance is thought to be crucial to all the adult movies hitting the screens at Christmas – including limited release items such as Fox’s “Naked Lunch” and MGM-Pathe’s “Rush,” which hope to break wider in early ’92.

Says Friedman of “JFK,” which is likely to spark controversy, “critics will view it either as a movie or some extension of their own political views. If they view it as a movie, we’re in great shape.”

Which will stand out?

Without kudos, few Christmas pics will be able to break out from the pack, especially since the major studios have placed so many of these movies head to head in wide release instead of platforming, as has been customary in years past.

And the audience they’re chasing – over 25, upscale – doesn’t hit movie theaters until Christmas Day.

Conversely, advance word on the one action adventure, “The Last Boy Scout,” and the single comedy, “Father of the Bride,” is high, since both are escapist entertainments with wide demographic appeal and easy marketability.

If the quality and commercial appeal of more than five of these films can attract filmgoers in number, 1991 may end on an up note.

Would that, then, signal an end to the moviegoing slump? Insiders say that will depend on the movies released in the first half of 1992. (The major sequels to “Batman” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” slated for next summer, already have expectations high for that important season).

“My own feeling is that it’s going to be a very good Christmas for the industry,” says Roth. “I have to hope that some first quarter movies have the goods. If not, everyone will go back to their homes and wait for the football season to end.”

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