Summer ’97: Winners, losers & schmoozers

TALK TO THE MARKETING and distribution people at the studios, and they’ve already put summer behind them. The combat of June seems but a distant memory to people trying to figure out the mysteries of fall — how “Home Alone III,” “Titanic” and the new James Bond picture all ended up being earmarked to open Dec. 19,for example.

Nonetheless, for those of us staring at the finish line, it’s still timely to ask some final questions about summer ’97. Who were the real winners and who were the losers?

Measured in terms of commerce alone, Hollywood as a whole was the big winner. Despite a rash of gloom and doom analyses in June, the exalted $ 4 billion box office mark was cracked by Aug. 14, two weeks ahead of last year — a record that brought great relief to Tinseltown. Overseas box office also achieved record levels according to still-incomplete data.

Studio chiefs always like to intone, “We achieved our strategic objectives,” and in fact, a few did in summer ’97.

MGM/UA, for one, certainly fulfilled its game plan. At the start of the summer, the studio said, “We’re going to sit this one out.” That’s exactly what it did, achieving a memorable zero market share. Few majors in history have ever hit their mark dead-on, so chalk one up for the well-traveled Leo.

Other companies, however, were less on target. One year after leaping atop the B.O. market share charts, 20th Century Fox this summer was mired in fourth place. Ironically, if the studio had been able to follow its original game plan of releasing its “Home Alone” sequel in midsummer, Fox possibly could have registered a strong showing (alas, the picture wasn’t ready).

SONY, TOO, FAILED miserably in achieving its expectation, but in a different way. Having curled up in a fetal position at the bottom of the charts a year ago , Sony would have been thrilled to find itself anywhere in the middle of the pack — a realistic strategic objective. Instead, the studio exceeded even its most outlandish goals, far outdistancing the field with a remarkable 23.7% market share for the year to date and a 41% share for July alone. That’s about as dominant as any studio has been in recent years, giving credence to those tired axioms about patience being rewarded.

Arguably, Disney (or Buena Vista as the B.O. charts list it) should be a bit disappointed about summer ’97, given the fact that “Hercules” failed to rise anywhere near the exalted heights of “The Lion King.” Then why the big smiles at the Mouse House?

While it sits a distant second on the market share chart, Disney might very well be first on the profitability index. Not only did the studio profit from a couple of successful low-budget films such as “Air Bud” and “Nothing to Lose,” but it also distributed two major hits overseas — “Face/Off” and “Air Force One,” financed by other studios. Disney thus had a shot at repeating its position as worldwide market share leader.

The studio also had arguably the biggest sleeper of the summer, “George of the Jungle,” thus giving Disney stakes in five of the 10 $ 100 million summer hits (including “Hercules” and “Con Air,” both studio-funded).

Thus, while Sony deserved the “comeback of the year” award, Disney seems a likely candidate for a “laughing all the way to the bank” medal.

SUCH CANNOT BE SAID for other studios, some of which found summer ’97 to be a struggle. Though “Batman & Robin” is percolating overseas, Warners, a very steady performer over the past decade, cannot be thrilled with its 10.8% market share for the year to date. Similarly Paramount, with its “show me the money” attitude toward producers, seems to be a fixture in sixth place. Universal, which occupies third place in year-to-date numbers, was in fourth a year ago and hopes its expanded program this year will levitate it still higher. “The Lost World” and “Liar Liar,” of course, produced huge numbers for that studio.

Whilethe B.O. seers were telling us that specialized films had a troublous time this summer, Miramax, even before “Cop Land,” had almost doubled both its grosses and its market share position from a year ago, and by the end of July should wedge itself among the “majors.”

So who should collect the most accolades this summer? Sony, obviously, for its big hits, and Disney for street smarts, but how about another special award to all those eager moviegoers out there who stood in line at the megaplexes, fueled by the expectation that Hollywood’s next “event picture” really would be eventful. Those loyalists surely deserve a reward — perhaps, say, a few more credible plots, some empathetic characters and, sure, also some mind-blowing special effects just in case their sensibilities were short-circuited along the way.

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