Studios dreaming of a green winter

The major studios are bracing for what looks to be a long, hot winter.

Despite all the talk about reduced studio output, a record 33 films are set to go into wide release during the first two months of 1997, a period of the year that historically has been largely devoid of box office heat.

In an effort to find opening weekends outside of the fiercely competitive summer months, the studios are gambling the market will expand to near-summer levels this winter to accommodate a flood of high-profile openers and expanders.

But unlike in summer, the industry won’t have the benefit of kids on school vacation or the time-tested allure of an air-conditioned theater on a hot day. In addition, the winter brings with it the constant threat of harsh weather, which can spell disaster for movie debuts.

The number of wide releases scheduled for January and February is up 27%, from 26 titles last year. What’s more, many of this year’s crop are big-budget blockbuster wannabes. Upcoming debuts include Universal’s megabudgeted volcano disaster film “Dante’s Peak” (Feb. 7), Castle Rock’s Clint Eastwood-Gene Hackman political thriller “Absolute Power” (Feb. 7) and TriStar’s mob drama “Donnie Brasco,” starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp (Feb. 28).

Back to space

Not to mention the return of three of the biggest popcorn movies of all time, the “Star Wars” trilogy, which Fox releases in updated digital splendor beginning Jan. 31.

While it has become commonplace in distribution circles to speak optimistically of transforming the movie industry into a year-round business, summer remains the top filmgoing season by far, followed by the year-end holiday period.

The first quarter, on the other hand, usually is the slowest three-month period of the year. Ticket sales for June-August last year were 44% higher than the January-March period. In 1995, the three summer months were up a whopping 79% compared with the first quarter.

January is the only month of the year in which no $100 million grosser has opened.

But statistics like those inevitably bring up the age-old chicken-and-the-egg conundrum. Because the winter months normally are box office duds, studios traditionally have avoided releasing their most promising films during the period. But some distribution execs believe audiences have stayed away simply because there were was nothing they wanted to see.

“Twenty years ago, the studios wouldn’t go out with a picture in May,” Phil Barlow, president of Buena Vista Distribution, explained. “That was the time for the independents to put out sequels to successful horror pictures and films like ‘The Swinging Stewardess.’ Now the summer season begins in mid-May.”

Catch-22

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Wayne Lewellen, Paramount president of distribution. “We say January and February are no good so we don’t put good movies in there.”

In fact, Lewellen notes, Paramount had success releasing “Wayne’s World” on Feb. 14, 1992. The “Saturday Night Live” spin-off surprised industry observers by grossing a way-cool $121 million.

A year earlier, Orion’s “The Silence of the Lambs” opened on Valentine’s day and went on to gross $131 million; the week before that, “Sleeping With the Enemy” began a $102 million run.

But top winter films typically fall far short of those levels. Last winter, Buena Vista was pleasantly surprised at the staying power of “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” which went wide Jan. 19 and orchestrated an $83 million cume over an extended run. Similarly, Fox’s “Broken Arrow” launched Feb. 9 and went on to hit $71 million.

While those films were clearly successful at their budget levels, a film such as “Dante’s Peak,” with a reported budget of well over $100 million, will have to do considerably better to be considered a hit.

At the same time, the quantity of high-profile product will make extended playoffs more difficult. As a new wave of films piles on each weekend, the weaker pictures must necessarily begin to lose screens. And of course, the reason studios have chosen to open more films in winter is to avoid the overcrowded summer market.

In addition to the upcoming wide openers, which also include Buena Vista’s Eddie Murphy starrer “Metro,” TriStar’s Chris Farley vehicle “Beverly Hills Ninja” (Jan. 17), Universal’s comedy “Fierce Creatures” (Jan. 24) and Gramercy’s Tupac-starrer “Gridlock’d” (Jan. 31), top holiday blockbusters “Jerry Maguire” and “Michael” still are figuring prominently at the box office.

Meanwhile, Christmas exclusives “Evita” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” now vying for attention, soon will be joined by the expansions of Fine Line’s “Shine,” Paramount’s “Mother” and Sony & Castle Rock’s “Hamlet.”

“January has always been the Golden Globe and pre-Oscar month,” Buena Vista’s Barlow said. “There used to be two or three, now you’ve got 12 or more. I’ve never seen as many as you have this year.”

“We’re not just talking about shelf space,” Lewellen said. “It’s a matter of oversaturating the moviegoing public.”

Weather is an added variable that could cause distributors headaches during the cold season. A single Friday-night blizzard could cripple a film’s longterm earning potential, because given the rapid-fire succession of films, pictures may not get a second chance if their first weekends get whited-out by a winter storm. Or they may have to spend even more on advertising to jumpstart a picture that got stuck in a snow bank.

“You can have the greatest picture and the best campaign and just get destroyed,” Barlow said.

In fact, last week’s frosty temperatures in the East and Midwest, and a rare snowfall in Texas, appeared to put a damper on the past weekend box office results. Final weekend figures generally were off about 5% from the Sunday estimates.

If the experiment doesn’t work out, distributors may find themselves wishing for winter to end so they can look forward to a nice, quiet summer.

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