SUMMERTIME B.O. BIZ LIMPS TO NEW RECORD

With preliminary numbers sweeping the town, the good news is that summer 1995 has set a new box office record. Though official numbers won’t be posted until Sept. 5, indications are that the 15 1/2-week span will wind up at $2.13 billion, 1.4% ahead of the 1994 gate.

Yet there are several key factors that mute the prospect of celebration. Chiefly, that the season’s 45 wide releases amounted to four additional titles during the period and that the average ticket price increased marginally from a year ago. Also, while the domestic marketplace is considered pretty close to the saturation point, industry chiefs expect steady growth – as experienced during the past five years – of between 3% and 4%.

Last summer wasn’t expected to match the dino-might of the “Jurassic” ’93, which finished with a 3.5% box office boost. That year had $300 million grossers with “The Lion King” and “Forrest Gump,” big bombs including “Wyatt Earp,” the late-summer surprise of “The Mask” and identifiable winners and losers in exhibition, distribution and talent sectors.

A year later there’s stasis.

“This is an industry of winners and losers,” said one senior studio executive. “The thought of breaking even drives people crazy and that’s basically what’s happened. A lot of people are just going to have to find solace in knowing that with all the money and effort that went into the summer schedule, even if the ledger balanced, millions of man-hours in opportunity costs were lost.”

The closing weekend provided a nail-biting finale, with Universal overtaking Warner Bros, for the summer market-share crown. Two years ago, the exact opposite scenario occurred, with WB’s late bloomer “The Fugitive” providing the extra oomph to push the studio past the early season strength of U’s “Jurassic Park” by a whisker.

But even with three studios (including Disney) generating summer B.O. of close to $400 million each, it’s difficult to give anyone straight As. Each of the trio certainly had more positives than negatives on its report card. Yet all suffered from releases that seemed to seize up short of their full potential.

The crowded marketplace resulted in new decibel-level ranges in complaints about pictures being pulled before they were played out to accommodate new product. The problem is a double-edged sword: The majors want to squeeze out a picture’s full commercial potential but they also want a lot of screens to open the next release on their schedule. Often the only way to get those extra 200 playdates is to bump their own film off a screen.

That problem wasn’t supposed to occur this year. But as the summer sked evolved, there were fewer releases – albeit dynamos – in June and a rapid escalation of films entering July and August. The box office responded with record levels early in the season and experienced sharp declines, save for the hiccup when New Line’s “Mortal Kombat” debuted two weeks ago.

The individual surprises weren’t the home runs of “Gump,” “Speed” or “The Lion King” – they were doubles and triples. No one expected an $80 million box office for Paramount’s “Congo,” or that MGM/UA’s “Species” would gross $60 million.

The midrange performers provided the essential difference and were the reason, despite hoopla, that the summer managed to seemingly expand an iota. Last year was dominated by $100 million-plus performers – eight summer debs went on to that level. This year only five will reach that height and two- Fox’s “Die Hard With a Vengeance” and Universal’s “Casper” – are virtually moving heaven and earth to push their B.O. just across that hallowed line. Conversely, there was a paucity of movies a year ago that landed between $50 million and $99 million. Only “The Client” and “Wolf hit that mesa during the span, while one can reel off “Nine Months,” “Clueless,” “Waterworld,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Crimson Tide,” “Dangerous Minds,” “Mortal Kombat” and the two previous mentioned pictures in this category.

Industry mavens shouldn’t be alarmed about their overriding sense of no appreciable marketplace growth. Their collective gut instinct hasn’t failed them. Summer ’95 turned into a season of midrange performances with only a couple of pictures noticeably going above or beneath the median. It’s not terribly exciting, but it does pay the bills.

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