It’s blockbuster season, and Hollywood is grappling with the following dilemma:

The theatrical shelf life of expensive summer pics, designed to be the studios’ major cash cows, is growing shorter every year, while costs rise steeply. On the other hand, surprise hits like “Forrest Gump,” “Ghost,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Free Willy” continue to rack up solid business even after their initial marketing blasts have ended.

Following the debuts of “Batman Forever” and “Pocahontas,” the coming weeks will see the launch of such high-profile vehicles as “Apollo 13,” “First Knight,” “Under Siege 2″ and “Waterworld.”

Films pre-ordained to be blockbusters routinely open in 2,000-plus theaters and have become increasingly intent upon sucking up as much money as possible in the shortest play time.

Summer skeds crank out films like sausages, supported by major ad campaigns and multimillion-dollar product tie-ins. Marketing strategies treat films like train schedules that should systematically arrive and depart at prescribed times – and with precise grosses – according to some alchemic formula. It’s the closest thing in Hollywood to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But even vigilant marketing mavens cannot dictate the unexpected, and this summer will be no exception. The sleepers – those films that catch the fancy of critics and build on word-of-mouth – can be even more profitable than the high-profile fare. But this second type of blockbuster is created by the audience, not at a studio marketing meeting.

Bat-talion advances

The past week’s big noise was Warner Bros.’ “Batman Forever,” which walked away with a sizzling $77.4 million in its first week. That represents a veritable bat-talion of new data for the record books.

The third installment of the Dark Knight now holds the B.O. title for top weekend debut ($52.8 million) and the top individual gross for each day of the weekend, including the first ever one-day gross of $20 million on its opening Friday. But the batpic fell $4.3 million short of “Jurassic Park’s” $81.7 million opening week peak. “Batman Forever” should pass $100 million June 25, its 10th day of release.

The successful launch of the crime-fighting Chiroptera is one of Hollywood’s commercial self-fulfilling prophecies with a happy ending. It was designed to be a commercial sensation and flexed the appropriate B.O. muscles on release.

Weeks before its debut, the favorite game in town was guessing just how much money it would generate in its first three days. Without going on the record, Warner Bros. was subtly (and otherwise) hinting that the picture was a satisfying audience romp and lined up a record 2,842 theaters and 4,300 screens to challenge the existing B.O. acme.

No one was betting against the studio’s ability to topple “Jurassic Park’s” $50.2 million weekend crown. WB is famous in industry circles for its ability to secure top screens and capitalize on maximum seating potential. Studio distribution president Barry Reardon calculated that the picture had slightly more than 1.6 million seats available per screening.

More to the point, the numbers translated into an impressive 375-seat average per auditorium. And at a time when 33% capacity is considered a healthy debut for a blockbuster, “Batman Forever” finished the frame with roughly 55% of capacity. It also accounted for 51% of marketplace business for the span.

Judging from historic patterns, the worst-case scenario for the picture would be a domestic B.O. of $160 million – on par with “Batman Returns.” If it follows the trajectory of comparable blockbusters of recent note, “Batman Forever” is more likely to wind up with $190 million.

The summer season begs the venerable industry chicken-egg conundrum: Is it the films or the availability of a leisure-time audience that gets those grosses so high? The top 20 all-time opening weekends (as well as top grossers) have all occurred during the summer or at Thanksgiving – with 16 between mid-May and early July. One can argue that the Nov. 11,1994, launch of Warner Bros.’ “Interview With the Vampire” preceeded the Thanksgiving-Christmas corridor. Others maintain that, as with the summer season, the studio was simply testing to see whether the peak play time could be expanded beyond its traditional frame.

Stretching the season

“When I was at Paramount, we decided to open ‘Top Gun’ a week prior to Memorial Day,” notes Sony Pictures marketing president Sid Ganis. “It was considered a gamble, and now it’s common practice. You’re always looking for ways to extend what’s essentially a short season.”

“There’s no question – and the record books bear it out – that there are pictures which have the capacity to gross $100 million or more any time of the year,” notes Cineplex exec VP Howard Lichtman. “The problem with saying that the very biggest grossers have opened at peak viewing periods is that there’s nothing to compare it with. There are no ‘Batmans’ or ‘Jurassic Parks’ which opened in March or September.”

Liehtman’s view is echoed from all sectors of the industry. Unquestionably, films can gross faster during holiday periods. For distributors, an added plus are contracts skewed in their favor during a picture’s initial play weeks.

Mild solace

So there’s some mild solace in hefty debuts of otherwise disappointing performers, including “Alien 3″ and “Beverly Hills Cop 3,” which had opening weekends that accounted for 42% and 36%, respectively, of their total box office.

More typically, recent summer fare such as “The Firm,” “Terminator 2″ and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” have opened to grosses that represent about 15% to 20% of their ultimate B.O. Off-season titles, including “Pretty Woman,” “Crocodile Dundee” and “Fatal Attraction,” had debuts of between 5% and 6% of their full domestic gross.

The difference between the two sets of pictures boils down to more than just longer playoff in theaters. None of the latter trio was designed as a blockbuster. They earned stellar numbers with sustained commercial appeal and, with rare exception, those major box office films whose openings are less than 10% of their overall gross were true commercial surprises.

Paramount’s “Forrest Gump,” one of the few summer releases that falls into that category, was initially expected to gross an impressive $150 million. No one could have guessed it would wind up at $330 million domestically – the third-highest grosser ever.

“There should absolutely be a more reasonably paced schedule of commercially potent titles throughout the year,” says Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco. “I’m convinced that a steady stream of high-profile product is the best way to reinforce the moviegoing habit.”

One exhibitor, scanning the release schedule, felt there were 15 to 20 films this summer that a frequent moviegoer would want to see.

“It just won’t happen,” he insists. “He might have time to see half of them before they leave theaters. I doubt that there’s a single picture this summer that will gross its potential, and the industry isn’t so flush that it can afford to squander $5 million to $10 million of additional revenue on every major release.”

Early death

Tom Sherak, Fox senior exec VP, concurs that the logjam of product during the frame necessitates that playable pictures have to come off screen to accommodate new releases. It’s an unquestionably irksome situation for which he sees no immediate solution.

Industry wisdom contends that all things are cyclic: Bad follows good, drought follows glut. The majors may operate at a fair to poor efficiency level, but every so often a blockbuster like “Jurassic Park” or “The Lion King” will arrive and wash away a lot of corporate sins with the flow of a $1 billion revenue stream.

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