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‘Twister’ leads WB to stirring year

WB 'Twists,' 'Jams' way to 2nd

HIGH POINTS: The studio fired its first volley against the Mouse House’s animation dominance with the release of the animated/live-action “Space Jam,” but Warner Bros. still landed in second place to Disney in market share.

But one of the year’s brightest decisions may have been the move to push up the opening of “Twister” to May 10, giving the cyclone pic extra steam before the coming of “Mission: Impossible.” Studio officials say it probably added about $50 million to its gross, and it gave the picture extra attention before the summer rush.

Overall, the studio did well in peak periods. In contrast to some other studios, almost its entire slate of summer releases was a success, including “A Time to Kill,” “Eraser” and “Tin Cup,” along with “Twister.” “Twister,” “Time” and “Eraser” all passed the $100-million mark, a summer record for a studio.

“Twister” made $242 million domestically; Universal has the pic overseas.

“Sleepers,” the star-packed adaptation of the bestselling book, was a modest success in the fall lineup.

The entire studio mobilized for “Space Jam,” a marketing bonanza and the first full-length feature for the Looney Tunes. The movie opened strong in early November, getting a jump start on holiday releases; however, it fell off when it ran into a slew of year-end pics. It should top out in the $90 million range domestically. Merchandising may make the Michael Jordan event pay off, thanks to ancillaries.

“We were very happy with ‘Space Jam,’ ” Warner Bros. chairman and co-CEO Robert Daly said, adding that the movie is “doing very well internationally.”

The studio wrapped the year with “My Fellow Americans,” hoping to duplicate the success of “Grumpy Old Men” movies of years past, but “Americans” doesn’t appear to be nearly as successful as those pics.

And execs at the studio struck a blow at the tabloid press: They set up a sting to nab a trio of infiltrators taking video of the closely guarded “Batman and Robin” set.

LOW POINTS: “Eraser” was one of the year’s few action hits, but the studio had one of this fall’s series of action disappointments with the Steven Seagal starrer “The Glimmer Man,” at least in domestic box office. Other studios – like U with “Daylight” and New Line with “The Long Kiss Goodnight” – had trouble with the action genre. “There are no guarantees,” Daly mused.

Other pics, like “Sunchaser” and “North Star,” seemed to come and go quickly in what was an unusually heavy fall.

The studio earned high marks for the fall release of “Michael Collins,” along with a share of controversy, but the movie’s domestic return has been disappointing. The pricey “Mars Attacks!” had the misfortune of following the year’s other alien invasion pic, “Independence Day.”

Warner Bros. played a part in the derby for MGM, with Time Warner backing both Morgan Creek and New Regency’s bids for the studio. They both came up short.

“That was just a case where we took a shot at it,” Daly says. “But (Morgan Creek and New Regency) just didn’t have the money.”

Warner Bros. still has a video distribution deal with MGM.

The studio lost out on a bidding war for Michael Crichton’s “Airframe.” It did, however, pick up the next John Grisham thriller, “Runaway Jury.”

MERGER MAKEOVER: Time Warner-Turner synergy so far: Hanna-Barbera products in the Warner Bros. Studio Stores. “Space Jam” promotions and specials on Turner networks. New cable channels like the CNN-Sports Illustrated network.

But for the Warner Bros. studio, the biggest change following the merger was the dissolution of Turner Pictures, adding a couple more films to WB’s 1997 roster, bringing in dozens of new projects to its development slate and giving deposed Turner execs added anxiety over where they would land next. Turner chief Amy Pascal didn’t stay to see the fallout: She took a job running Columbia Pictures.

At year’s end, what was definite was that Warner Bros. would release former Turner projects like “Edwards and Hunt” and “Fallen.” Execs were still mulling over others, which include a live-action version of “The Jetsons,” a remake of “The Fountainhead,” the bio of Bill Veeck, “Veeck as in Wreck,” and even “Gilligan’s Island: The Movie.”

Before the merger was even completed, WB had taken over distribution for Turner Feature Animation, which has its first and only release coming out this spring, “Cats Don’t Dance.”

Questions linger over the future of Castle Rock and New Line Cinema. Time Warner is looking for outside financing for Castle Rock, and expectations are that the company will set up some sort of production arrangement under the WB fold. Yet the impact won’t be seen in 1997: Castle Rock still has a year on its distribution deal with Sony.

Meanwhile, a buyer has yet to emerge for New Line. But execs at both companies have scoffed at the suggestion that New Line also will end up under the Warner Bros. fold, given Robert Shaye’s desire for autonomy.

NEW BLOOD: A studio famous for the absence of executive shuffles saw a sea change in 1996. Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Bill Gerber succeeded Bruce Berman as presidents of production, Ed Frumkes took Wayne Duband’s post as head of international, and New Line’s Chris Pula was chosen to succeed longtime marketing chief Rob Friedman, who left to go to Paramount.

Changes have been subtle, but the studio has made inroads in bringing new, younger talent to the lot, with production deals with Robert Lawrence and George Clooney as well as Matthew McConaughey.

The studio reupped with Mel Gibson’s Icon Prods., but it ended up sharing the arrangement with Paramount.

OUTLOOK FOR ’97: Warners is still the home of stars: John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman in “Mad City,” Robin Williams and Billy Crystal in “Father’s Day,” Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves in “Devil’s Advocate,” Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts in “Conspiracy Theory,” to name just a few.

Look for the studio to mirror its release strategy of last year, with the first quarter starting off slowly and building to a bevy of blockbusters in the summer. “I look at this coming year as very similar to last year,” Daly said.

Production is expected to begin on the underwater sci-fi pic “Sphere,” after preparation on the Barry Levinson picture was shut down last fall to control costs.

Other big tentpoles are “Batman and Robin” for the summer, and “The Quest for Camelot,” its first full-length animated feature – and its first step into animation production minus the Looney Tunes. That could prove to be a much greater challenge in marketing and merchandising.

Warner Bros. will compete with Disney on another front. Both studios are releasing biopics of long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine, with Disney’s scheduled for limited release in January and WB’s on tap for later in the year.

And Warner Bros.-based New Regency Prods. could continue to make waves, lining up additional investors and upping its TV production. New Regency launched the lower-budget unit Regency Vision this year, which starts with this year’s “Goodbye Lover.”

The past year also saw Arnon Milchan’s entry into the shoe business, when he bought a stake in Puma. But footwear is becoming old hat for the studio lot. Warner Bros. will make its foray into athletic footwear when its WB Sports apparel line is introduced in ’97.

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