Mid-budget pix pack puny punch

HOLLYWOOD — Lost in the hoopla over this summer’s record-breaking box office and blockbuster hits is the sad story of the also-rans — the mid-range bread-and-butter films at nearly every studio that failed to find an audience.

The high failure rate this year of films like Buena Vista’s “My Boyfriend’s Back” and TriStar’s “Weekend at Bernie’s II” would only be a footnote to a glorious summer if the studios had much hope that such movies could make a comeback.

But many believe mid-range films — the $ 15 million-$ 25 million efforts with no A-list stars — are an endangered species in a world where dinosaurs roam at a cost of some $ 60 million. Some say that because studios — and their corporate parents — are increasingly obsessed with making blockbusters, the production of mid-budget films is becoming a lost art.

That’s bad news both for aspiring talent and for new studio chiefs like Fox’s Peter Chernin, Paramount’s Sherry Lansing and MGM/UA’s Mike Marcus and John Calley. Those execs will need plenty of mid-range films — what studios used to call programmers — to round out release skeds while gearing up development.

But due to a convergence of economic and aesthetic dynamics, the kind of movies that used to be inexpensive programmers are now budget-bloated blockbusters. One reason is escalating marketing costs.

A shoot too chancy

“The basic problem is putting yourself $ 20 million at risk every time out,” says a senior studio executive. “Any decision on what to greenlight is almost certain to mean $ 20 million between production costs and prints and ads. So you kid yourself into thinking that a big star or making a sequel is less chancy and therefore worth risking more money on. Confronted with something that doesn’t have obvious saleable elements is about the scariest thing people at a studio have to face.”

That’s one reason why “The Fugitive,” which might have been a decent-grossing genre actioner with, say, Don Johnson as the star, became a big-ticket blockbuster when Harrison Ford took on the role.

In another era, “The Fugitive” would have been made by indie or studio B-units on low budgets without marquee names and pushed out on a couple of hundred screens for two-week engagements. Had there been no “Jurassic,” the dino-pic of the summer would have been Concorde’s “Carnosaur,” a low-budget monster movie that grossed only $ 250,000 earlier this summer.

Bye-bye to true Bs

Films like “Carnosaur” were once ideal for drive-ins and small regional theater circuits. Today those venues are either extinct or cluttered with high- and low-end studio product. In other words, the majors are keeping the B-movie tradition alive — only with the biggest stars and using state-of-the-art effects that have sent budgets skyward.

“B movies are now more expensive than A movies,” notes filmmaker Monte Hellman. “There’s this childlike appetite to feed, and mostly that’s being done by the studios. With the possible exception of a kind of soft erotica, virtually every genre has been taken over by the majors.”

Meanwhile, the major studios collectively need some 50-60 mid-budget films every year to fill out release skeds and feed foreign and video distribution arms. Some can be negative pickups or acquisitions: Warner Bros. acquired “Boiling Point” this year, TriStar bought “Weekend at Bernie’s II” and Fox picked up “Best of the Best 2.” But not all the films can come from the independent sector.

Dire to OK

This year, the studios’ homegrown efforts at mid-budget production were disappointing. Although thrillers remain the most marketable genre — every studio has trotted out at least one this year — none was a runaway hit. Box office ranged from dire to OK on Paramount’s “The Temp,” Fox’s “Hear No Evil,” Buena Vista’s “Guilty As Sin,” TriStar’s “The Sniper” and Warner’s “The Crush.”

At the same time, high concepts have been producing low returns. For every boy and his whale (“Free Willy”) that made a splash, there was a parade of forgotten warriors, including “My Boyfriend’s Back,””Life With Mikey,””Hexed, “”Trespass,””Aspen Extreme,””Whispers in the Dark” and “Year of the Comet.”

“I don’t think that there’s any question that the studios’ primary interest is tentpole pictures,” says producer Robert Solo. “The rest of the slate is really just to fill in the release schedule, or video, or other playing commitments. Everyone knows that those pictures always have a shot at becoming major hits. The problem is that for the most part these are after-thoughts. When no one has a strong feeling for the material going in, why should you expect anything better than what’s being produced?”

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