Summer Pix: Swords And Sequels

Summer ’95 is crammed with a mix of powerful, hopeful and downright curious films. The biggest season of the year boasts a handful of huge sequels as well as a trio of expensive period adventures. It will offer fewer family pix, but more comedies – especially light-hearted fare with adult appeal.

Amid the clamor at the recently concluded NATO/ShoWest ’95 convention, one question from exhibitors echoed on the floor: Will “Waterworld” and “Sabrina” be completed in time for summer playdates?

Universal insists the mega-budget Kevin Costner actioner “Waterworld” will be in theaters in July, despite rumors that it’s being repositioned for Thanksgiving. Paramount also maintains that the remake of romantic comedy “Sabrina,” starring Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond, is still on target for the hot season, though it’s just mid-way through filming.

Both films have about four months to meet current release dates and, while neither dead-line is impossible, each will require a breakneck pace and round-the-clock post-production just to deliver wet prints to theaters.

But even if one or both winds up dropping out, the summer is hardly likely to collapse: About 45 films are expected to debut wide in the May-September corridor.

A year ago it was industry wisdom that nothing could top the “Jurassic” summer of 1993, which also embraced “The Fugitive” and “Sleepless in Seattle.” But along came “Forrest Gump,” “The Lion King,” “Clear and Present Danger” and “The Mask” to prove everyone wrong.

Biggies at the gate

This summer, the feeling among distribs and exhibs is that a lot of potentially huge films are waiting at the gate when Buena Vista launches the military thriller “Crimson Tide” on May 12 to open the season. Once again, Disney will pull out all the stops with its animated musical “Pocahontas,” and author Michael Crichton is repped with the big-screen adaptation of “Congo” via Paramount.

Juggernaut titles – those films with heavy star artillery, big budgets and other commercial hooks – expected to perform in the $100 million arena range from Universal’s deep space “Apollo 13” to New Line’s video arcade escapee “Mortal Kombat” and Fox’s domestic comedy “Nine Months.”

Then there are the costume adventures, starting with Mel Gibson in the Scottish highlands in “Braveheart” for Paramount. That film will cross swords with Columbia’s “First Knight” – starring Sean Connery, Richard Gere and Julia Ormond – and Geena Davis and Matthew Modine as swashbuckling pirates in MGM’s “Cutthroat Island.”

At ShoWest, where theater owners saw trailers for the films, some exhibitors expressed concerns about “Braveheart” and “First Knight.” But given star power, several months to tinker and the fact that the most recent period adventure was the successful “Last of the Mohicans,” exhibs are giving summer hopefuls the benefit of the doubt.

Sequel strength

Perhaps the most formidable element of the upcoming B.O. season is the return of the sequel. The past two summers have been light on franchise films or “IIs” and “IIIs.” Last year, “Clear and Present Danger” was the only one to perform with distinction.

But this summer, Warner Bros, is almost exclusively powered by new editions of past hits, including perhaps the most eagerly awaited pic of the season, “Batman Forever.” The studio also will release “Free Willy 2” and “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory.” The other major sequel is Fox’s third “Die Hard” installment, which opens a week ahead of Memorial Day.

Once again, the season is largely front-loaded, with Castle Rock’s Billy Crystal comedy “Forget Paris” from Columbia opening the same weekend as “Die Hard With a Vengeance.” Memorial Day pits “Braveheart” against Universal’s friendly ghost “Casper,” and a week later Keanu Reeves stars as cyberpunk hero “Johnny Mnemonic.”

For the moment, “Congo” is unchallenged June 9 and “Batman Forever” has a solo flight June 16. The following weekend includes the dynamic duo of “Pocahontas” plus Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep in the adaptation of bestseller “The Bridges of Madison County.” By the July 4 weekend, “Apollo 13,” Fox’s “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” and “First Knight” will all be in the marketplace.

But with the so-called official start of the summer box office still two months off, a lot can change – especially for titles skedded to debut after July 4. Distributors love to play the summer because of faster returns and stronger weekday numbers. But there’s little point to unveiling a film with juice if you can’t secure a decent complement of screens, including some top-drawer venues.

That’s already prompted MGM to move up “Rob Roy” from August to April. Others hoping to get the jump with late spring releases include the comedy thriller “Bad Boys” from Columbia with Martin Lawrence and Will Smith, and the Sandra Bullock thriller “While You Were Sleeping” via Buena Vista.

Still, exhibs at ShoWest kept repeating that they’d really like one of those top summer titles right now. Granted, most aren’t ready. One that is, “Johnny Mnemonic,” will open in April… in Japan.

“If ‘Johnny’ has the potential to do $70 million in April or the same box office in June, it should open earlier,” says a senior studio exec. “Because of faster playoff, you make more theatrically in the summer. But if you do $70 mil during that period, you might only be the eighth biggest film for that time of year. In April you’d be the biggest hit and that means better cable deals and a bigger video shipment. You also wind up being a big hero with exhibitors.”

The same scenario works when you pluck a summer release and move it into the post-Labor Day period. Fox worked wonders going that route with “Mohicans,” and last year Universal got better mileage from “The River Wild” and “Timecop” – originally on its summer slate – in the fall.

Screens may get scarce

Deeper into the summer, the quest for screens becomes more problematic, particularly for favored sites in key cities. With virtually every major holding out the carrot of a couple of juicy titles, both exhibs and distribs predict a bloody battle for screens.

It’s certain that “Waterworld,” Sylvester Stallone in Disney’s “Judge Dredd” and “Sabrina” – all late summer openers – won’t be content just to secure 2,000 playdates. The filmmakers also will demand a number of prestige houses.

Box office performance during the past three summers has demonstrated a remarkable ability on the part of distributors to scare up screens when needed. But by definition, there is a limit and it’s called 100% capacity. But imagine if every theater in the U.S. and Canada attracted 10 more people per show this summer – or just 40 to 50 more patrons a day. That seemingly minor boost adds up to $100 million.

Now, imagine if every screen in North America were to lure 20 more….

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