Small pix enter summer’s dark horse race

The $141 million box office scored by Universal’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” after two weekends could well signal the biggest summer box office bonanza ever. In the wings are at least 10 more “event” pictures, including such hot tickets as “Con Air,” “Hercules,” “Batman and Robin,” “Men in Black” and “Air Force One.”

However, the season — despite ferocious ad campaigns for the chosen blockbusters — isn’t just widescreen spectacle. An additional three dozen pictures are set for a national release this summer and 30 or so pics more will premiere in specialized situations.

With such fierce competition one wonders whether a surprise, perhaps a sleeper hit on the order of “Sister Act,” “Clueless” or “Free Willy” of summers past, is even possible.

This year, nearly every non-megapic is hoping it will be the Little Movie That Could, the one that defies the odds. The stakes are high, the fear factor is enormous and the prospects of ascending above the noise increasingly difficult.

One industry pundit said he has a gut instinct that “A Smile Like Yours” (with Greg Kinnear and Lauren Holly as a couple expecting their first child) and the psychological thriller “Desperate Measures” could tap into the audience Zeitgeist and gross more than $50 million — significantly better than their current prospects up against hijackers, dinosaurs, aliens and cowled crime-fighters.

A $50 million domestic box office also would be manna from heaven for the likes of “Air Bud,” the saga of a basketball-playing dog; the Nickelodeon cable spinoff “Good Burger”; and the eco-themed “Wild America” with Jonathan Taylor Thomas.

“We are not on the radar,” admits “Burger” producer-director Brian Robbins. “We got a greenlight in January to make the film on the condition it would be ready for the summer. So our publicity is very late. The poster just got approved and the trailer’s supposed to be ready next week.

“We’re up against ‘Air Force One’ and ‘Conspiracy Theory,’ but the kids that know the (Nickelodeon) character aren’t interested in Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford. We are going to be the surprise picture of the summer. It’s definitely the date movie for 11-year-olds.”

Still, it’s a long shot for any programmer to do more than $20 million to $30 million during the summer. Aside from the beefed-up marketplace competition, smaller-risk pics rarely receive TLC treatment in marketing or promotion.

In recent years there have been fewer left-field hits every summer, and the most recent successes have experienced diminishing grosses. Last year there wasn’t a single unheralded title that managed to break away from the pack and deliver socko grosses.

“We love those films that come out of nowhere and just play and play,” says Cinemark theater’s director of marketing Randy Hester. “But there’s no question that it’s harder to succeed simply on the basis of quality. Some very good pictures have gotten lost in the shuffle, like ‘A Little Princess,’ and I just don’t know what you do about those situations.”

The majors’ 1997 strategy isn’t much different from recent seasonal patterns — just more intense. One or two blockbusters a week are scheduled for release through August.

The situation in specialized is even more drastic. There’s simply no comparison between what’s on tap and last year’s crop of “Emma,” “Lone Star” and “Trainspotting.”

“The past 18 months have been great for specialized,” says Bob Laemmle of LA’s Laemmle Theatres. “We’ve hit a dry patch that you could see coming after the disappointing lineups at Sundance and Cannes. I’m sure a number of pictures like ‘Ulee’s Gold’ and ‘Mrs. Brown’ will do well but it just won’t be as buoyant as the past few years.”

Hester notes that the summer schedule is dominated by movies with perceived B.O. potency, whether it’s a $100 million-plus powerhouse or a quickie family film that plays two weeks and moves exclusively to matinee shows.

One exhib points to the Hollywood majors’ increasing reliance on formula and their move away from risk-taking as what has killed the marketplace surprises.

“I used to work very hard to land the film that was going to be the summer sleeper,” says Dan Harkins of Arizona-based Harkins Theatres circuit. “I really haven’t seen one in a couple of years. Sure, there are pictures that do better than expected but forget about finding the picture that’s supposed to do $10 million and does $80 million. Your odds for a sleeper are much better in specialized, and then you’re talking about something like ‘Lone Star,’ which did $12 million rather than $3 million.”

Harkins also notes that the advent of megaplexes means that exhibs rarely are confronted with making choices. They basically play everything from the majors to fuel their 20-plus screen locations.

And when a major film falters, opportunity comes knocking for a sleeper or a niche title to enter the mainstream. A picture on the cusp of success could get that helpful nudge because of name elements or powerful screen averages in limited release.

Stars were fortuitous for such summer dramas and romantic comedies as “Courage Under Fire” and “Something to Talk About.”

This season they’ll boost a handful of films including “My Best Friend’s Wedding” with Julia Roberts, Demi Moore as “G.I. Jane,” Tim Robbins and Martin Lawrence teamed in the action-comedy “Nothing to Lose” and the venerable team of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in “Out to Sea.”

“We are definitely counter-programming,” says “Out to Sea” co-producer David Friendly. “The picture is not going to knock ‘Men in Black’ out of the water, but it’s very funny and we have every confidence that it’s going to have a long, steady run.

For a film like this, it doesn’t matter very much when you open it. These guys have a very loyal audience and funny translates to all ages and audiences.”

Still, the prospect of “Out to Sea” grossing $100 million seems impossible.

“The thing about surprises is that they cannot be identified by definition,” notes Buena Vista president of distribution Phil Barlow.

“You are not the dark horse if everyone picks you as the surprise or the sleeper. These are things that can only be determined after the fact, when people start to write articles about what happened at the summer box office.”

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