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Grim H’wood holidays

If industry crystal-ball gazers compiled the year-end box office report for Daily Variety, here’s the story they would tell about the Christmas That Might Have Been:

“Disney roared as ‘The Lion King’ ruled the holiday box office with a weekend gross of $ 21.6 million. Columbia’s ‘Wolf’ was far from lean and hungry as it gobbled up $ 13.4 million for second place. Paramount’s ‘Intersection’ went into high Gere in third, a Stone’s throw behind at $ 12.7 million. Columbia’s ‘I’ll Do Anything’ and TriStar’s ‘Guarding Tess’ got off to slow starts with respective weekends of $ 7.6 and $ 6.3 million. In its limited seven-screen launch, Miramax had an anything but ethereal response of $ 32,400 per for its classy ‘House of the Spirits.’ ”

Of course, none of those planned holiday films showed up under the tree this season. Some, like “The Lion King,” fell victim to production delays; others, including “Intersection,” had worrisome test results. Most agree that Fox’s “Mrs. Doubtfire” has been the only picture so far that opened with a bang and continues to show box office muscle.

No great expectations

With most of the remaining Christmas pix already in release, Hollywood has lowered its expectations for a banner year-end. And exhibs fret that the absence of hot pix will encourage audiences to stay at home over the holidays in front of the tube.

Two months ago, a senior studio exec predicted five Christmas films would gross more than $ 100 million. With a handful of releases to come, the smart money is now betting no more than two or three films will generate a nine-figure box office.

“There’s no question that a lot of pictures haven’t done the kind of business they were expected to do,” says Richard Blacklock of Exhibitor Service Inc. “But I can’t imagine that anyone thought ‘Josh and S.A.M.’ or ‘The Nutcracker’ would be a hit at any time of the year. It’s just unfortunate that this Christmas hasn’t had a picture to bring in kids.”

What has distributors and exhibitors gnashing their teeth is a long list of not-so-hot pictures that were sold as “play-through” powerhouses. “Addams Family Values,””Carlito’s Way” and “The Three Musketeers” failed to grow legs; as a result, Paramount’s “Addams” will lose dates this weekend to the studio’s “Wayne’s World 2,” and Buena Vista’s “Musketeers” will give way to its “Sister Act” sequel.

Marketing magic

“This is a season of smoke and mirrors,” says one exhibitor. “You can’t imagine how hard the majors were selling some titles as playing into the new year. And because there’s such a crunch on prime screens, they were simultaneously talking about bringing in new titles to replace those films that were supposed to run through the holidays. It was as if the lunatics were running the asylum.”

And apart from the star appeal of Julia Roberts in Warner Bros.’ “The Pelican Brief,” the films still to come don’t exactly have exhibs dreaming of sugar plums. Despite “Dances With Wolves” and “Unforgiven,” Westerns are far from surefire hits. Nonetheless, the studios are trotting out two this season — Columbia’s “Geronimo” and Buena Vista’s “Tombstone”– neither of which is driven by a huge star. And theater owners are edgy about whether the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau comedy “Grumpy Old Men” will translate to a young audience. By default, Universal’s “Beethoven’s 2nd” is being embraced as having real sleeper potential.

One industry tracker estimates that the combined box office so far from “A Perfect World,””Musketeers,””Addams” and “Carlito” will come up short by as much as $ 100 million of peak projections. He believes the studios outsmarted themselves in stacking the release schedule with “can’t miss” sequels and star vehicles.

No easy answers

“The reason the marketplace has suddenly gone flat can’t simply be explained away by not enough good pictures,” says the exec. “If you went by the critics, ‘Perfect World’ and ‘Addams Family Values’ would be much bigger performers. You cannot release a string of sequels and star-driven films and expect the audience to do the rest.”

The tepid box office for “Addams”– and early disappointments for new chapters in the “RoboCop” and “Look Who’s Talking” franchises — raise fears of a sluggish response to the other upcoming holiday sequels. That in turn prompts speculation about the general viability of followup pix. Conventional wisdom calls for releasing a sequel within two years of an original. But with video and cable exploitation following hard on theatrical release, it’s now felt that new installments may have to wait longer.

Holiday musical chairs

“The fact that it’s going to be a good, not a great, holiday season is more circumstance than conspiracy,” observes a marketing exec. “I don’t think there’s a single studio that had a plan mapped out that didn’t have to change it. Paramount dropped ‘Intersection,’ Warners came in with ‘Grumpy Old Men,’ Disney switched its opening on ‘Tombstone’ three times, Fox pushed up ‘Mrs. Doubtfire.’ It’s been totally topsy turvy.

One contrarian, Fox exec VP Tom Sherak, insists it’s “time to get the popcorn ready.” He believes the season is only just beginning and that it will carry through into the new year. His studio’s “Mrs. Doubtfire” will add more than 500 playdates in upcoming weeks and he feels new titles will lift spirits as the shopping days dwindle to Christmas.

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