The summer movie season has barely begun and already key players in distribution and exhibition are getting anxious about an impending screen crunch.

But the squeeze isn’t the traditional one of too many major studio releases vying for a paucity of key playdates. This time the anxious customers are the people who cultivate the niche pics. And this summer, there are a lot of niche pics.

Just two weeks after Memorial Day, the traditional start of the U.S. summer, those vaunted specialized films – the ones that appeal to the hordes of adults that studies show are flocking back to the movies – are evaporating as the big seasonal guns hit cinema beachheads. The firepower so far, including “Crimson Tide,” “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” “Casper” and “Braveheart,” has quickly washed away the toehold established by “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill…” and “Farinelli.” In the past month, the specialized picture market has lost nearly half its domestic market screens.

The dropoff is particularly severe this year because the failure of so many mainstream releases in the first quarter brought a receptive climate for niche pics. Such diverse fare as “The Madness of King George,” “The Secret of Roan Inish” and “Exotica” picked up a lot of the box office slack. While the overall first-quarter box office declined 20% from 1994, specialized features experienced a 6% boost during the same period.

The boost, combined with a study by the Motion Picture Assn. of America that identified over-40 viewers as the fastest growing group of moviegoers, gave rise to hope that the specialized sector was building a larger core viewership. This summer finds more specialized films entering the marketplace than ever. Miramax alone is releasing 15 specialized films this summer (see story, page 9). But more recent developments cloud that scenario.

For two decades the audience for American indie and foreign language films has been fairly consistent. Expansions and contractions have largely related to availability of product: When mainstream films pancake and stronger alternative movies expand to fill the void, a significant faction of the moviegoing public will opt for the more adventurous fare – but only until something more familiar appears.

The current swing back to the tried and true became apparent with the releases of “Bad Boys” on April 7 and “While You Were Sleeping” on April 21. The first film was the strongest opener to that point in 1995, and “Sleeping” saw its second weekend gross surpass its debut number. Then a clutch of new films arrived with 2,000-plus engagements.

Confronted with soft early year B.O., National Association of Theater Owners president Bill Kartozian predicted in March that a strong summer would bring the box office even with 1994 by Labor Day. Following heated openings in April and early May, industry mavens reset their sights to the 4th of July weekend. But last week, when the overall box office hit $1.9 billion, the year had already pushed ahead of the same period in 1994 by $10 million, with no signs of losing momentum.

Top 10 hold two-thirds

Currently the domestic top 10 hold approximately two-thirds of the nation’s screens. Multiplexes, which had been reserving one or two auditoriums for upscale titles, are now clambering for those extra seats to accommodate “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Congo,” not to mention such imminent B.O. behemoths as “Batman Forever,” “Pocahontas” and “Apollo 13.”

The major chains are actually breathing a sigh of relief right now because June is light in volume. But by the time the July 4th weekend arrives with a triple whammy of “Apollo,” “Judge Dredd” and “Mighty Morphins,” softer performers like “Mad Love,” “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Fluke” will give way to facilitate the huge demand for freshman screen time.

Exhibitors’ annual, seemingly impossible, feat of juggling to maintain good relations with distributors seems do-able at least until August. But one or two sleepers – or a lot of niche pictures tying up the auditoriums – could change that. Sleepers are by definition impossible to foresee, but the niche pics are predictable.

Distributors who are largely devoted to distinctive product don’t have the leverage to maintain the major chain screens this summer. One month ago, specialized films accounted for more than 3,600 playdates among titles tracked in Variety’s top 60. Last week that figure had waned to a shade more than 2,000 engagements, or a 45% decrease. It’s certain to experience further erosion in the coming weeks.

An estimated 400 screens exclusively play specialized fare, including 80 of the 140 operated by Landmark Theaters. In recent years, key national operators such as AMC and United Artists have experimented with designating a screen in a multiplex as its “art house.” But that shrine to auteurs often disappears around June.

UA holds firm

United Artists is taunting the natural order with a commitment to specialized movies in key markets regardless of what comes down the mainstream pike. The chain’s John Lambert says 38 screens nationwide will be dedicated to that type of fare. The policy reflects the increasing number of niche films with crossover potential in the past two years.

Dan Harkins, whose Phoenix-based chain includes three art complexes, says that luring adult auds through the summer requires heavy promotion and a state-of-the-art theater. But he notes with some irritation that his best screens periodically gross a fraction of what’s earned from a rundown house in a more established arthouse market such as Seattle.

“The major worry this summer is not volume but the individual strength of titles,” says Jeffrey Jacobs, whose Jacobs Entertainment books 37 art screens, including Manhattan’s Angelika. “I’ve told my customers to think Cinematheque. There aren’t many titles, particularly in June and July, that look like they have more than two or three play weeks. But there are a lot of movies, and I think you’ll see art houses doing split bills to maximize a theater’s grossing potential.”

Bert Manzari, senior VP at Landmark, agrees that it’s probably a “quantity” summer in the specialized arena. He says that a year ago there were pictures such as “Eat Drink Man Woman” and “Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” that were perceived as commercially potent long before their releases.

That’s not the case for the upcoming season, though he’s high on Miramax’s “The Postman” and optimistic about the August debuts of Sundance hits “The Brothers McMullen” and “Living in Oblivion.”

The entire frame, however, could turn on a single title – “Kids.” Everyone agrees that it is the only buzz pic in the art market.

The much publicized film is slated to debut July 21. But it has yet to be submitted to the Ratings Administration where it’s virtually certain to receive an NC-17 tag. Miramax, a master marketer of controversy, has been told by its parents at Disney that it will not be allowed to release it with the harsh rating. It can be sold off, as occurred last year with the Martin Lawrence concert film “You So Crazy,” or acquired and released via a nonaligned company.

With ‘Kids’ gloves

Arthouse exhibitors want “Kids” on or as close to the planned release date as possible and won’t be at all happy if it’s significantly delayed. Miramax has yet to supply a trailer or poster for the film, and that’s creating a lot of anxiety. Privately, those set to screen early are making subtle inquiries about the availability of other titles from rival companies. One exhib simply shrugged and said: “I’ve given up on guessing what Miramax’s grand scheme on ‘Kids’ is.”

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