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Studio wizards lack lizards

HOLLYWOOD — Summer may be several blizzards away in most of the country, but the major studios are already seeing green as they plot the domestic release of some 60 films during the lucrative period between Memorial and Labor Day weekends.

And with exhibitors descending on Las Vegas this week for the National Assn. of Theater Owners ShoWest confab, many say summer ’94 looks remarkable less for what it has than what it hasn’t: dinosaurs, or even apes.

“There will be no 500-pound gorilla this summer,” an exhibitor says with a sigh of relief. “There are a lot of the 100- and 200-pound types out there, and it looks like it could be another record summer. But it always looks good at this time of year.”

Especially at ShoWest, an industry love-in at which the majors wine and dine exhibitors, trot out upcoming wares and raise a lot of excitement and anticipation. Though designed to look at the year ahead, ShoWest always emphasizes the coming summer, and with good reason. In 1993, the period accounted for 41% of the year’s $ 5 billion plus box office.

This summer is “not as front loaded as in past years,” notes Columbia distribution chief Jeff Blake. “We’re probably going to see an unprecedented number of releases, which wouldn’t be so bad except that it also looks like the overall quality of the films is going to be very, very high. The big crunch will probably happen on the July 4 weekend. After that it’s going to be a real scramble to get and keep screens.”

This year, Warner Bros. will jump start the season with its Mel Gibson big screen “Maverick” May 20. Five days later, Paramount kicks into gear with “Beverly Hills Cop 3” and on May 27, another TV fugitive, Universal’s “The Flintstones,” goes live-action with John Goodman, Elizabeth Perkins and Rick Moranis nationwide.

June highlights include Kevin Costner as “Wyatt Earp” for Warner Bros., Disney’s animated “Lion King,” Columbia-Castle Rock’s “City Slickers 2” and Jack Nicholson in Columbia’s “Wolf.”

In the wings for July and August are Alec Baldwin as Universal’s “The Shadow, ” Jim Carrey as “The Mask” for New Line and Harrison Ford reprising his Jack Ryan role in Paramount’s “Clear and Present Danger.” In all, some 60 wide releases are shaping up to contest the 14-week period, surpassing last year by a handful of titles.

As things stand — and no one believes there won’t be changes — the important Independence Day weekend will see the debut of Buena Vista’s “I Love Trouble,” with Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts, and MGM’s big-scale actioner “Blown Away,” starring Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones.

But the Fourth of July film drawing the most interest is Fox’s “True Lies,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by James Cameron — who directed Schwarzenegger in both “Terminators.” The question for exhibs is whether the pic will actually be ready on time. The action-adventure film is full of complex effects; Cameron’s last two efforts –“T2” and “The Abyss”– were pushed back from their opening dates.

Rivals circling

The prospect of “Lies” vacating the potent weekend has rivals circling. One or two of the summer’s other major popcorn entertainments are certain to jump in if Arnie has to step aside.

“That’s our date,” says Fox senior VP Tom Sherak. “It’s months away, a lot can happen. But we talk to Jim (Cameron) all the time and he’s comfortable with having it ready in time.”

Sherak sees yet another bloody summer play period and a lot of second-tier titles fighting for theatrical life. “People go crazy when you pull a picture from the summer. It’s like an admission of failure,” says Sherak. “There was a two-ton weight over ‘Mohicans’ when we moved to the fall. We made $ 75 million theatrically and I can assure you there was no way to do that business in the summer. We would never have got the attention, we would never have got the theaters for that type of gross. Sometimes you simply can’t afford not to move out of the summer.”

Exhibitors agree. “The problem we face is the shotgun mentality,” says Richard Blacklock of Exhibitors Service Inc. “Distributors skirt a very fine line in trying to get you to take all their product on the basis that one or two titles will hit. This will be the third ‘Disney Summer’ (comprised of nine titles) and its approach is catching on. Columbia has its own version, and its reps have been calling around to see if they can line up people to take their six titles. Columbia has already set out their terms and are asking people to commit. But it looks to me like they’re just testing the waters.”

Indeed, muscle is the byword as studios try to tie up prime screens and locations.

Exhibitors, meanwhile, need the assurance of product flow. Not many summer films can sustain more than a four-week run on a major screen. With the average multiplex sporting six separate rooms, the appetite to feed is downright voracious.

“You simply cannot depend on the blockbusters,” notes a rep from a major chain. “There’s no question that pictures like ‘Jurassic Park’ are ultimately very profitable for us. But in the initial weeks the terms are so steep, there’s virtually no margin for us. Basically, you hope these pictures will be a magnet and benefit your other screens. You have to play the big pictures, but what’s really greatare the middle films which play week after week.”

That’s been a big part of the draw of Buena Vista’s summer pack. But the studio may find its deal somewhat muddied. In addition to mid-range, niche pictures, including a new Pauly Shore, the kid-targeted “Camp Nowhere” and the baseball remake “Angels in the Outfield,” it has at least one juggernaut in the animated “Lion King”– as well as the high profile Nolte-Roberts pairing, plus Danny DeVito starring for director Penny Marshall in “Renaissance Man.”

Exhibs would obviously love to get favorable terms on the latter trio by taking the summer slate, but no one believes the company will jeopardize the earning power of its animated effort.

Disney also faces plenty of competition for its traditional family market. Warner Bros.’ year-old family unit trots out a new “Black Beauty” and the animated “Troll in Central Park.” Fox has a “Yellow Dog” while Paramount unkennels “Lassie.”

While there’s no paucity of youth-targeted pictures, the same cannot be said of more adult fare — which, apart from Savoy’s erotic thriller “Exit to Eden,” will be restricted to limited runs.

Meanwhile, the studio lineups have received guarded enthusiasm from exhibs. Beyond the high-profile titles, there’s anticipation for such films as Woody Harrelson in “The Cowboy Way” and the outdoor adventure “River Wild” from Universal; TriStar’s comedic “Cop Tips Waitress $ 2 Million,” with Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda, at TriStar; Tom Hanks in Paramount’s “Forrest Gump,” and new efforts from name producer-directors, including Rob Reiner’s Columbia-Castle Rock “North,” John Hughes’ “Baby’s Day Out” for Fox, and Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” via Warner Bros.

But the summer sked is still writ in sand. Even June-slated pictures are jockeying for just the right weekend to launch, while prime July films could edge forward or back — and August is very much up for grabs.

The Vegas confab should answer a few questions, but for the moment the only things clear are lots of product, high hopes and the likelihood of a bloody season for distribs and exhibs that just might require a massive sensitivity awareness session post-Labor Day.

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