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Ironic Hollywood

B.O. gains aside, the misses keep comin'

On the eve of the Oscars, it is healthy to note that despite gaudy B.O. gains of late and a record spate of $100 million-plus grossers in 1999, the flops just keep on coming.

The most recent member of the dud club is Sony’s Garry Shandling starrer “What Planet Are You From?” The alleged comedy’s $6.2 million cume through March 19 stands in inverse proportion to the high number of stars in the cast.

At a negative cost between $55 million and $75 million (depending on whom you ask), “Planet” is a cinch to lose money. But calculating the ultimate deficit is nearly impossible, as it depends on a complex web of output deals, foreign pre-sales and ancillary revenues.

Besides “Planet,” auds over the past few months have stayed away in droves from such feeble fare as “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc” (Sony again), “Man on the Moon” and “Isn’t She Great?” (both Universal). And let’s not forget “Molly,” an Elizabeth Shue drama that MGM actually released “direct to airline,” bowing it on planes before a domestic theatrical run that brought in $17,650.

Though titles such as “Ishtar,” “Howard the Duck” and “Hudson Hawk” are timeless debacles, the definition of a bomb has evolved through the years. Though the studios may protest, many observers have hung the label on “Bicentennial Man,” “The Iron Giant” and “Lost in Space,” whose worldwide grosses ranged from $30 million to $120 million but fell way short of expectations.The May-July span, always the critical part of any studio slate, has lately seen few of the biggest B.O. fiascoes.

Aside from the release slot (February, August and October seem to be the cruelest months), it’s tough to generalize about what type of pic is more predisposed to failure. Even pics with apparent commercial hooks and the high-gloss marketing treatment befitting a blockbuster can, and do, wind up as B.O. mincemeat.

Wide range

A broadly defined list of the worst bombs of the past five years would include roughly equal amounts of comedy, sci-fi, period drama and animation.

“If there was a guaranteed hit formula, we’d use it,” huffs one distrib chief.

With all of this in mind, the Variety bomb squad bravely sifted through the refuse of the past five years. Although no movie maven may be able to prevent an unnatural disaster, the following guidelines may help them at least figure out what hit them. Consider it a public service.

  • A-bombs. To be sure, many a misfire features A-list stars or directors.

    Heading the recent list would be Sony’s “Random Hearts,” the Harrison Ford-Kristin Scott Thomas starrer helmed by Sydney Pollack. The sober story of two people who meet and become lovers after their philandering spouses die in the same plane crash signaled “mayday” last fall, managing just $66 million worldwide. Costs to make and market it were nearly double that total.

    Still, that’s a smash compared with “The Scarlet Letter,” which Disney released in October of 1995. Star Demi Moore justified the wanton revision of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel (remember the finale, with Moore’s Hester Prynne not only surviving, but tearing off the red “A” and tossing it away?) by observing, “Hardly anyone’s read the book.” Hardly anyone saw the movie either, and it finished with a $10.4 domestic tally.

    The 1998 Barry Levinson-directed sci-fier “Sphere” starred Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson. The pic drowned anyway, mustering $37 million domestically and about the same overseas.

    To Disney’s consternation, many showbizzers lump “The Insider” into this category. The multiple Oscar nominee has been a critics’ darling and commercial misfit. With roughly $40 million in the worldwide till, it’ll need every last ancillary to recoup.

  • Neutron bombs. Their detonation leaves studios largely intact, but annihilates many of the humans involved.

    Eddie Murphy somehow found new commercial life after a series of these bombs, including “Holy Man” (domestic cume: $12.1 million) and “Vampire in Brooklyn” ($19.8 million).

    There’s been no such film comeback for Oprah Winfrey, who produced and starred in Disney’s “Beloved” in October 1998. At 171 minutes, the Jonathan Demme-lensed Toni Morrison adaptation put off most auds, grossing just $22.9 million in the United States.

    ‘Island’ fever

    Then there’s everybody’s cocktail-party favorite, “Cutthroat Island.” Carolco’s 1995 Christmas release thwarted the progress of director Renny Harlin and his then-wife Geena Davis. After opening to $2.4 million, the MGM release limped home with $10 million in the United States.

    Separation, it’s worth noting, proved fruitful for Harlin and Davis. In 1999, he rebounded with “Deep Blue Sea,” she with “Stuart Little.”

  • Stealth bombs. Thanks to advance research and sometimes just gut feeling, studios often know when they’ve got a turkey on their hands.

    Accordingly, they scale back P&A and try to shift attention to other releases. Often the scrambling comes too late. The sole comfort is in the relative anonymity of these bombs.

    Despite toplining Robin Williams, Sony’s “Jakob the Liar” lost what Internet pundits call the “race to market.” It was the second tug-the-heartstrings comedy about the Holocaust, the first being “Life Is Beautiful” in 1998. That Roberto Benigni pic collected Oscars and $57.2 million. “Jakob” ended up with an humorless $5 million.

    MTV Films has found commercial and critical hits with “Beavis & Butthead” and “Election,” but the MTV property “Joe’s Apartment” laid an egg when released by Warner Bros. in July 1996. Gross of $4.6 million followed initial release on 1,500 screens — a high level at that time.

    There are so many worthy candidates in this category, but it may be fitting to end with “Unforgettable.”

    The 1996 pic registered the lowest opening weekend gross of any pic in the past five years that bowed on more than 1,500 screens: $1.4 million. Final domestic cume came in at $2.8 million. For bomb connoisseurs, “Unforgettable” indeed.

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