Pix face fall fray

Tight sked ignites screen space race

Here’s the dark little secret about the upcoming fall movie season: It’s going to be as crowded and ruthlessly competitive as the summer. The majors are recruiting the likes of Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, John Travolta and more giant alien bugs to capture audiences with an unprecedented assault of movies.

Rather than the usual arthouse and quiet-drama fare, the studios are releasing a fall harvest teeming with star vehicles and pricey pics. The marketplace will see a release sked so crowded that four new films a week will be the norm and six the extreme. That means specialized, indie films could be squeezed out of the traditional time to showcase their wares.

All this marks a radical change from past autumns, and a strong carry-over of summer glut philosophy into the back-to-school season. But unlike recent blockbuster-obsessed summers, the fall will see a huge diversity of films, ranging from the mega-budget sci-fi “Starship Troopers” to the film noir “L.A. Confidential” to debut efforts from new distribs with major aspirations (DreamWorks, Polygram) and Fox’s tyro animation unit.

“It’s probably one of the most promising September lineups in years,” UA Theatres senior VP Michael Pade said. “That combined with a couple of summer holdovers could really carry things through to the holidays. But it’s very crowded, very competitive, and that’s going to make it bloodier than usual.” Particularly worrisome for exhibitors is an October lineup that presently boasts 24 wide releases.

In the 13 weeks between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, close to four dozen features will go into wide release. Even if the number shakes down to 40, that would still be an additional 10 pictures from last year.

Since 1994, the period has generated more than $1 billion at the domestic box office. However, last year’s business ebbed from the previous two years, and admissions sank to pre-1990 levels. The sole bright spot among September-October 1996 releases was Paramount’s “The First Wives Club.”

Few obvious winners

This year, with the exception of TriStar’s “Starship Troopers” — a Nov. 7 release getting a jump-start on the year-end holiday season — there isn’t a picture on the slate that smacks of blockbuster status. However, plenty of other pics could be seasonal winners.

In the fall, distribs and exhibs generally lower the bar, searching the release sked for pictures that can do $35 million to $60 million. The breakaway title that might soar into the $100 million range is always an added bonus.

Since the late 1980s, such diverse fall openers as “Seven,” “Crocodile Dundee,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Look Who’s Talking” and “The First Wives Club” each have generated $100 million-plus box office — well beyond initial expectations.

Among the more eagerly awaited releases for fall:

“The Game”: Polygram Filmed Entertainment’s first release stars Michael Douglas and Sean Penn in a psychological thriller with a kinky sexual bent.

“In and Out”: Kevin Kline stars in the Paramount comedy about a small-town teacher who’s “outed” on national TV by a former student, now a famous actor. “L.A. Confidential”: Critics in Cannes gave heavy kudos to this adaptation of James Ellroy’s crime investigation, from Warner Bros./New Regency. A complicated film noir in the tradition of “Chinatown,” it’s set in 1950s L.A.

“The Peacemaker”: The maiden release from DreamWorks casts Nicole Kidman and George Clooney as a scientist and a military intelligence officer sent to Russia to track down a missing nuclear missile now in the hands of a terrorist group.

“U-Turn”: Sean Penn drifts into a quiet Arizona town and mayhem ensues in the latest from Oliver Stone. The TriStar release also stars Nick Nolte, Jennifer Lopez and Billy Bob Thornton.

“Seven Years in Tibet”: The true-life tale of Heinrich Harrer, a mountaineer captured in the Himalayas by the British during World War II. Brad Pitt stars in the TriStar/Mandalay production that chronicles his escape and a journey in which he becomes tutor to the young Dalai Lama. Recently uncovered documents on Harrer’s Nazi past have added a controversial edge to the picture.

“Devil’s Advocate”: “The Firm” meets “Dante’s Inferno” as crackerjack lawyer Keanu Reeves is lured to a top Manhattan firm that turns out to be run by satanic forces. Al Pacino co-stars in the Warner Bros. release.

“One Night Stand”: Mike Figgis directs Wesley Snipes and Nastassja Kinski in an assignation that leads to a cat’s cradle of complications. Robert Downey Jr. co-stars in the film from New Line.

“The Jackal”: The updated “Day of the Jackal” casts Bruce Willis as a mysterious assassin who has a Russian leader in his sights. Richard Gere and Sidney Poitier are on his trail in the Universal production.

“Anastasia”: The debut animated musical from Fox is a late-season release geared for the holiday crowd. A retelling of the life of the supposed daughter of the last Russian czar from director Don Bluth.

Diversity hailed

“What’s exciting to us about the fall is the diversity of the product,” Loews chain senior VP Shauna King said. “There’s a lot of potentially strong movies like ‘In and Out,’ ‘The Peacemaker,’ ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ and ‘Devil’s Advocate.’ There’re also many films with the ability to play well to a certain crowd like ‘Fire Down Below’ for action fans, and upscale stuff like ‘A Thousand Acres’ and ‘Bean,’ or hitting an ethnic group with ‘Soul Food.’

“Having all kinds of moviegoers in the audience not only expands box office, it provides a momentum that should set up the holiday pictures really well.”

If that scenario plays out, specialized pics that have traditionally taken advantage of fall-season lulls could also be squeezed out of mainstream dates. That’s been a growing trend; an increasing number of pictures that were apt to open in September or October, following Toronto or New York fest showings, are now waiting until Thanksgiving to go theatrically to capitalize on year-end critical attention and kudos.

Hard to prognosticate

Several upscale distribs and majors with niche product titles admit they simply don’t know if their early fall platform movies will achieve the type of potential and exposure possible just two years ago.

While the flood of product has distributors jockeying for the most favorable opening date, exhibs are generally upbeat about having so many choices. There’s real confidence that something in the mix will gross double its initial marketplace expectation.

Everything from Live’s horror anthology “Wes Craven’s Wishmaster” to Fox’s pedigree action-adventure “The Edge” with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin and the latest Grisham adaptation, “The Rainmaker” from Francis Coppola and Paramount, is a reasonable candidate for B.O. kudos.

A different marketplace

“The marketplace has really changed,” noted Regal Cinemas director of marketing Phil Zacheretti. “A picture that does two or three strong weeks is almost certain to be a good performer for us. That wasn’t the case a couple of years ago.”

Michael Patrick, president of Carmike Cinemas, underlined that point. “We look at the fall as a season where the volume of product is really important,” he said. “We’ll do just fine with a bunch of singles and doubles and anything that’s better just improves the picture.”

As one film booker noted, the new megaplexes thrive on lots of product. However, while 20 or more screens under a single roof allows for wider latitude in programming, the sheer volume of movies this fall is going to push pictures out of the marketplace a lot quicker. Even, he noted, as slow midweek business will force many venues to darken several auditoriums.

“We are the home of the megaplex,” said Richie Fay, president of film marketing at AMC. “We have the ability to hang on to pictures like ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ longer. Our concern in the fall, or any season, is getting pictures on a non-competitive basis to maximize on their gross.”

The recent building boom of new theaters (with an emphasis on sites with 20 or more screens) has allowed blockbusters to debut on 3,000-plus screens and programmers to routinely secure 2,000 screens. That translated into significantly faster playoff this summer, a trend likely to continue with this fall’s crowded marketplace.

What remains unclear is whether the accelerated burnoff translates into diminished grosses or fewer play weeks.

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