Pix beset by burnout

Columbia’s “Men in Black” has been heralded as a summer savior, grossing close to $140 million in two weeks of release. It’s been one of the few bright moments in a troubled summer.

In general, box office results so far are nervous-making, and industry leaders already have strong views about lessons to be learned and pitfalls to be avoided:

  • Similarity breeds contempt. Too many like-minded event pictures shrink the pool of moviegoers.

  • Sell the steak not the sizzle. Marketing acumen is getting people into seats on opening weekend, but the hype is often more impressive than what’s on screen, leading to negative word-of-mouth.

  • Pictures are burning out faster. Blockbuster titles are now routinely debuting on 3,000 or more screens, and, combined with promo blitzes, have conditioned moviegoers to run out and see movies in their first three days of release.

This summer raises broader questions that cut to the very essence of Hollywood moviemaking. Have audiences become so hip that they’re bored with the combination of elements that had proven surefire for decades? And, if that’s the case, is this the end of a blockbuster era? If so, what will it be replaced by?

In May, an unprecedented lineup of blockbuster titles had exhibitors and distributors breathless in anticipation of the most profitable summer of all time.

But just past midway through the season, box office is trailing last year’s record by 9%. Few are expecting a second-half upturn that would enable this summer’s tally to top 1996’s $2.2 billion. Even the most recent weekend holiday frame — despite “Men in Black” — lagged 6% behind last year’s B.O. for the comparable period.

This summer, “we have a slate of films that’s strong, but not diverse,” Cineplex exec VP Howard Lichtman said. “The audience feels like they’ve already seen the new movies. That’s an ongoing problem for sequels, but it’s also affected new titles.”

Since May, weekly box office has experienced rapid falloff of interest for high-profile releases. Some industry-watchers have declared this a season of flops, but only two summer releases — “Fathers’ Day” and “Speed 2: Cruise Control” — have thus far been major financial write-offs.

However, many other event pictures, including “Con Air,” “Batman & Robin” and “Hercules,” have fallen short of presumed commercial appeal. Pictures thought to be slam-dunk $100 million-plus grossers are merely inching toward that level, after dynamic openings which held out the promise of more buoyant returns.

“You can’t call something a megahit any more simply because it has grossed $100 million,” MGM distribution president Larry Gleason said. “That benchmark was established when the most expensive pictures cost $35 million to $40 million. This summer’s cheap event pictures have $70 million budgets, and the proliferation of special effects-driven movies hasn’t expanded the marketplace — they’ve been killing one another off.”

The diminished season has generated an inordinate amount of rationalizing and Monday-morning quarterbacking, even by traditional Hollywood standards. Theories for the moviegoing downturn have ranged from the absurd (“too many animated features”) to credible (too few options for filmgoers; hype over content).

But a couple of grim prospects simply aren’t being addressed. Topping the list is the notion that the domestic marketplace has reached its saturation point. While some believe that domestic theatrical growth has tremendous elasticity, instances of double-digit seasonal or annual expansion in the past decade are rare and inconsistent.

Also being challenged is the old saw that hit movies spawn more hit movies. This summer has lacked the snowball effect of past frames. Instead, each new high-profile movie has hit or fallen without benefit or hindrance from competition in the marketplace.

One conclusion that’s being reached from all sectors is that the shelf life of movies is getting shorter. The leggiest picture of the summer has been “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” and that’s experienced 25% to 30% drops — a rate of erosion considered a strong hold just one year ago for a blockbuster title, but not so hotsy-totsy for a romance or comedy.

The faster burnouts have been ascribed to a ramping up of screens on a picture’s opening break. The construction of megaplexes has made it easier to secure 3,000 or more screens, and has provided movie patrons with many more options in starting times.

“This is the first time in history that the top movies have been able to provide multiple shows and not have to turn people away,” noted New Line president of distribution and marketing Mitch Goldman. “The rules and viewing patterns have clearly changed.

“If a greater percentage of people can see ‘Lost World’ or ‘Batman & Robin’ or ‘Men in Black’ as soon as they open, those pictures are going to routinely drop off by 50% or 60% their second weekend.”

Or, as one tracker observed, “The Lost World” will still get to $230 million to $240 million at the domestic box office, but it will happen a lot quicker than initially expected. And front-loaded hits favor distributors. A Universal insider claimed that the faster playoff of the dino sequel will translate into a 4% to 5% higher settlement and $20 million to $25 million more for the distrib than had it lingered into the fall.

Higher aggregate terms aren’t by any means the chief grievance exhibitors have this summer. Their primary gripe is fewer patrons overall — meaning less concession sales. At the close of the holiday weekend, an estimated 226 million tickets had been sold during the summer, 11% fewer than in 1996 for the same span.

Lichtman believes that distribs and exhibs will have to rethink release patterns and reduce opening breaks.

But Mark Zucker of Sony distribution said the expansion is impossible to stop. “No one is going to open with 1,400 prints and rotate them to secondary markets,” he maintained. “Exhibitors want the big pictures on the break because they drive concession sales.”

Sony is having the type of successful summer other distribs had aspired to but have seen slipping away. It’s on track to do $500 million — an all-time industry seasonal record — from such pics as “Men in Black,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and, hopefully, the forthcoming “Air Force One.” (The major potential glitch for “Force” would be if the public likened it to “Con Air,” another yarn about thugs hijacking a plane.)

Dick Cook, Walt Disney Motion Pictures chairman, said the present market irony is that “My Best Friend’s Wedding” is holding its own against the onslaught of “high-octane product.”

He noted that size isn’t all that counts with audiences, citing such films as “Dead Poets Society” and “Phenomenon” as small-scale summer movies that effectively swam against the current.

“The real irony,” said another senior studio exec, “is not simply that the traditional summer blockbusters are coming up short. It’s that we’ve learned you can release a summer movie any time of the year. A couple played in the spring, and the record business they spurred is the only reason the yearly box office is ahead of last year.”

However, the year has dwindled from an 18% edge over 1996 in April to a current lead of 5.5% and, at the present rate of erosion, might trail last year as early as Labor Day.

Some believe that if the summer finishes with a lower box office and fewer patrons, studios will rein in future plans for megabudgeted extravaganzas. However, it’s unlikely that the signs of change will be noticeable for at least 18 months.

Already slotted for next summer are such event movies as “Godzilla,” “Mighty Joe Young,” “Dr. Dolittle,” “Armageddon” and “Saving Private Ryan,” clones of TV’s “The Avengers,” “The X-Files,” “The Mod Squad” and “My Favorite Martian,” Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” and the animated musicals “Mulan” and “Quest for Camelot.”

“I think the summer has made most studios a little bit more cautious,” Cook said. “I’m not certain that will be reflected in sig
nificant policy changes. We all tend to believe that we have the picture and slate that’s going to bust out and create the kind of monster success that rubs out a lot of red ink.”

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