Plethora of pix ends summer

Like the finale in a dazzling if somewhat uneven fireworks display, the 1997 summer movie season is going out with a bang: Ten wide releases will burst onto screens in the season’s final two weekends.

With a half-dozen pictures debuting on 500 or more screens this weekend, distributors and exhibitors were prepared Monday for fireworks of a different kind as they haggled over playdates.

But the negotiations proved less explosive than many had expected, as aging holdovers conveniently made room for the crop of newcomers.

It’s been that kind of summer.

As the season began, rival distributors were so concerned over the power of Universal’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” that most avoided the first three weeks of summer altogether. When “Lost World” dropped off quickly after a monstrous opening, moviegoers were left with few alternatives.

When the gloom continued through June, many observers started making dire predictions about the health of the market. But the summer turned itself around in mid-July, and recently surpassed even last year’s record haul.

Opening today are “G.I. Jane” (Buena Vista) “Masterminds” (Sony), “Mimic” (Miramax), “Money Talks” (New Line). “Leave It to Beaver” (Universal) and “A Smile Like Yours” (Rysher/Paramount).

There’s also Live Entertainment’s limited 10th anniversary reissue of “Dirty Dancing” and an animated remake of “Pipi Longstocking.”

Together, those films accounted for about 10,000 playdates.

“We were all gearing for a real bloody Monday,” said one distribution exec, “but it didn’t turn out to be that bad.”

Yielding to the freshmen were almost a dozen holdovers that had pretty much run their courses.

Films losing more than 400 screens included Warner Bros.’ “Free Willy 3: The Rescue,” Paramount’s “Good Burger” and “Face/Off,” Sony’s “Men in Black” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” and Disney’s “George of the Jungle,” “Air Bud” and “Nothing to Lose.”

In smaller markets, some aging holdovers, including “Contact” and “Men in Black,” moved into split-screen situations, further easing the congestion.

No tears

Distributors were generally unperturbed by the losses. “There were probably some runs that were terminated that shouldn’t have been, but once you get past 1,500 or 1,600 runs, it’s hard to do a lot of business for a lot of weeks,” said Phil Barlow, president of distribution at Buena Vista. “With few exceptions, when all is said and done, you do about 80% of your business on about 800 screens.”

But one exhibitor had a different take on the Monday negotiations: “Everybody was expecting it to be a huge battle, but frankly none of the films was worth fighting over.”

Indeed, with the exception of “G.I. Jane,” box office expectations are modest for the new crop.

$12 million or more?

Pre-opening interest in “Jane” jumped markedly during the week, according to market research. Observers now believe the Demi Moore starrer could recruit as much as $12 million or more.

“Money Talks” appears on track to earn some interest in urban areas, while “Mimic” seems likely to attract an initial rush of teenagers. However, “Masterminds,” “A Smile Like Yours” and “Leave It to Beaver” look considerably less promising.

“It’s the time of the year when people’s minds are turning to other things,” said a distribution honcho. “A picture like ‘Air Force One’ or ‘George of the Jungle’ still can maintain an identity. But new ones will have a harder time. Summer is coming to an abrupt end.”

Labor Day weekend will see the opening of MGM’s mob-themed “Hoodlum,” Sony’s

Alicia Silverstone starrer “Excess Baggage,” Universal’s fantasy “Kull the Conqueror” and Miramax’s drama “She’s So Lovely.”

It will be interesting to see whether sparks fly as four additional films get shoe-horned into the schedule. If the rest of the summer is any indication, the answer will probably come as a surprise.

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