Summer’s big B.O. boost gets clone away

NOTHING PROMOTES the movie-going habit like options. That truism seems to apply to everything from breakfast cereal to movies. The proof of the latter has been pretty dramatically demonstrated during the current summer moviegoing season.

In the weeks following the Memorial Day weekend debut of “Jurassic Park: The Lost World,” the eagerly anticipated high-profile, big-budget event pictures opened with good to disappointing results. “Con Air,” “Speed 2: Cruise Control” and “Batman & Robin,” along with “Jurassic Park 2,” looked like quadruplets. They shared budget size, state-of-the-art visual effects and an underlying commercial cynicism that had a decided impact on their appeal. Collectively, their B.O. performed to the industry’s two-thirds rule-of-thumb: Variety projects the four films will gross $510 million, or 64% of the domestic box office of the films that spawned them (“The Rock” in the case of “Con Air”).

Yet crawling to the seasonal midpoint on the July 4 weekend, overall summer B.O. was lagging behind the 1996 record pace by 11%. The industry consensus was that there was no way to close the gap and a very dark cloud hung over Hollywood.

Four weeks later, the weekend tally was shattering records. “Air Force One” was declared an instant hit and such diverse films as “George of the Jungle,” “Face/Off,” “Contact” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” were performing at better-than-anticipated levels. “Men in Black,” which kicked off the second half of summer, also proved to be the summer blockbuster success its hype machine promised.

The past weekend experienced a potent box office boost of 37% from 1996 that was the result of more than just the launch of “Air Force One.” Disney’s “George of the Jungle” dipped just 20% and audiences could actually select from dramas, comedies, thrillers and family films. And now it looks that the earlier gloom was premature: this summer seems to be on track to at least equal last year’s numbers.

CONCLUSION? To quote the old cliche, variety is the spice of life. One of the rules of Marketing 101 is that the ideal range of choice is between three and seven. Starting with two options promotes arbitrary decisions. When a third choice enters in the equation, moviegoers begin to really make selections. But with a list of more than seven, the information one has to consider to reach a decision starts to become a jumble.

Of course, none of these considerations factor in quality. Would a series of six well-made, well-crafted action-adventures meet with better results than a stream of indifferent, banal comedies, dramas and children’s films? The lab results favor the second scenario simply because a varied selection of films casts a wider net. A number of films of the same stripe are targeting the same audience and will necessarily cannibalize each other.

In the real world, the lab tests have been borne out this summer and in past summers that experienced major marketplace expansion — most noticeably in 1989 and 1993. The former frame not only ushered in the first “Batman,” it also offered “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” “Dead Poets Society,” “The Karate Kid” and new chapters in the “Ghostbusters” and “Indiana Jones” chronicles. Four years later, “Jurassic Park” led a charge that also included “Sleepless in Seattle,” “The Fugitive,” “Free Willy,” “In the Line of Fire” and “Menace II Society.”

TESTING THE THEORY, the first quarter of 1997 also experienced significant growth that can be attributed to the variety (and entertainment quality) of pictures in the marketplace. The combination of the re-release of the “Star Wars” trilogy, stars such as Jim Carrey and Clint Eastwood doing what they do best in “Liar Liar” and “Absolute Power,” respectively, and spirited performances of “Dante’s Peak” and “Jungle 2 Jungle” translated into a 17% box office boost.

The National Assn. of Theatre Owners had been hammering away at the majors to release more high-profile pictures during the spring and fall and their belief in that strategy harvested a nice growth in grosses.

Back in the lab, they’re preparing to uncork “Spawn,” “Conspiracy Theory” and “G.I. Jane” and may just have the formula for another record- breaking summer. But it’s taken a lot of tinkering to reach that end considering that the solution had always been staring the movie scientists in the face.

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