Summer 1995 almost certainly will be another box office record-breaker, but for distribs it could be a summer of sturm und drang.

Competition to secure screens will be tough. Keeping those screens will be even tougher as the majors fight the bloody battle for market share.

“I’d be very surprised if we didn’t surpass last summer,” with its all-time-high $2.12 billion in domestic grosses, says MGM/UA distribution president Larry Gleason. “There are some very potent titles, and none of the big pictures is coming in with a negative buzz… which is very encouraging.”

With such perceived hits as “Batman Forever,” “Apollo 13,” “Pocahontas” and “Die Hard With a Vengeance” on the horizon, there’s genuine confidence that revenue will increase by at least 4%, maybe even balloon by 5% to 6%.

That scenario is happy tidings for theater owners but potentially foreboding news to distributors.

Currently there are 56 films scheduled to open between May 12 and the end of August, compared with 47 pictures last year. No one believes that will be the final number as several films will likely move to the fall.

But as matters stand, there will be 19% more movies. To keep pace on a per-pic basis, the box office for the summer would have to rise to $2.5 billion. As one industry tracker noted, theoretically it’s “do-able.” Historically, however, summer has never seen a double-digit boost. Last year – which was not expected to top the 1993 summer of “Jurassic Park” and “The Fugitive” – business expanded by about 4%.

The scenario for the July 4 weekend is already inducing Excedrin Headache No. 9 symptoms in exhibition and distribution circles. Scheduled to debut for the holiday are Universal’s “Apollo 13,” Buena Vista’s “Judge Dredd” and Fox’s “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.” The trio are collectively expected to tie up between 7,500 and 8,000 of the roughly 27,000 screens in the U.S. and Canada. Add into the equation BV’s “Pocahontas” second weekend and WB’s third for “Batman Forever,” and five films will occupy half of the domestic screens.

The rest of the titles in the marketplace will be feeling the squeeze, especially post-Memorial Day fare such as Paramount’s “Congo,” Sony’s “Johnny Mnemonic” and Buena Vista’s “Mad Love.” And from that point in time, matters get worse as Sony unveils “First Knight,” Fox enters with “9 Months” and Warner Bros.’ assails us with “Under Siege 2.”

“It’s going to reach new levels of combativeness,” says Rich Black-lock of Exhibitor Services. “Up to July 4, the majors will probably be able to get the dates they need. But there’s a lot of anxiousness that something like ‘Speed’ is going to come along and throw everything out of whack.”

The potential dilemma of this or any summer is the unforeseen hit. Industryites expect such early summer entries as “Crimson Tide,” “Braveheart” and the “Die Hard” sequel to open with a bang. But should they display sustained energy after four weeks, the result will be a serious squeeze on available screens. The surprise could very well be the film adaptation of Robert Waller’s “Bridges of Madison County” from Warner Bros. As one maven noted, movies from hit novelists are like having a movie star, and “Madison County’s” popularity supercedes John Grisham by a mile.

“It’s inevitable that a picture will come along and reshuffle the deck,” says Paramount distribution president Barry London. “We saw that happen with ‘Ghost’ and last year with ‘Forrest Gump.’ It’s great when you have one of those films, but it unquestionably makes it a lot harder for the overall release schedule.”

Even though a flood of product tends to favor the exhibitor, it hardly makes his life easy. One chain buyer says the ultimate test is successfully juggling screens and keeping suppliers happy.

While there are about 27,000 screens domestically, split bills give the illusion of several thousand additional outlets. And with such key distributors as Warner Bros., Universal, Buena Vista, Fox and Paramount offering multiple juggernaut titles, their weaker and fading titles may linger a little longer in the marketplace (with diminished daily screenings) than those of players with limited muscle.

“I don’t want to alienate anyone,” concedes theater booker Ed Pemika. “This is a very cyclical business. Someone who has a string of losers this year may have a lot of pictures I’ll want to play next spring that I don’t know about right now. I’m not going to cut my throat to accommodate him, but I’m not going to brush him off either. I also expect distributors to cut me some slack when their picture is dying on the vine.”

If the first half of summer is a headache, it’s safe to say the second is a veritable nightmare. The three weekends beginning with July 28 now promise 20 new titles. Industry mavens use a single word to describe that prospect: impossible.

Though the release schedule has seen radical changes in the past month, some anticipate even more drastic revisions (especially for July and August) in the coming weeks. As things stand, there are only five wide releases during June’s five weekends, including three that have solo entries. Last summer only the weekend following July 4 – when “Gump” debuted – had an unchallenged freshman.

The lopsided nature of the sked has prompted a cottage industry of armchair quarterbacking about “smart” releasing moves. Certainly the prospects are rife for pix to move up into June, and it’s likely that several among the August flood will be siphoned off into the fall.

“If we had a picture that was right and ready, I’d slot it right now in June,” says Buena Vista’s distribution president Dick Cook. “Right now it’s really the great opportunity for someone to do some effective counter-programming.”

It’s been speculated that the Fox comedy “9 Months” would make the move, possibly opening simultaneous with “Congo.” But a studio insider insists that won’t be the case. They’ve positioned the film to play the second part of the summer, after most of the megapix have opened.

London says if any lesson has been learned, it’s to avoid a reliance on sequels and gimmick pictures. He says those pictures, while big openers, have tended to eat away at audience confidence.

“It’s there in black-and-white – seasons reliant on sequels don’t do as well as when you have a lot of original movies,” observes Nikki Rocco, senior VP of distribution and marketing at Universal. “The pictures have to deliver on an emotional and entertainment basis, of course, and it looks like the summer slate has that. So the best news for all of us really has to do with the economy. The atmosphere is good, people are willing to spend on entertainment, and we have the movies they’re going to want to see.”

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