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‘BAT’ BLITZ BODES NEW B.O. ERA

Batman can’t fly, but he may break the land speed record.

With Warner Bros.’ Friday launch of “Batman Forever” in 2,842 theaters and 4,000 screens – about 15% of the entire domestic marketplace – the studio has thrown down the gauntlet in the race to secure summer playdates and cash in quickly before the next wave of star-laden films.

Warner Bros., mindful that it needs “Batman” screens for its summer sequels to “Under Siege” and “Free Willy,” hasn’t been pressing most exhibs to commit to more than a six-week minimum. By that time Warner expects “Batman” will have stashed a bundle into its utility belt – hopefully the great majority of its B.O. potential.

Screen explosion

The current season has seen such films as “Congo,” “Crimson Tide,” “Casper ” “Braveheart” and “Die Hard With a Vengeance” explode with more than 2,000 playdates. In the coming weeks, “Pocahontas,” “Apollo 13,” “First Knight,” “Judge Dredd” and “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” will be courting a comparable number of theaters.

By early July, it will be a very crowded marketplace, displaying no mercy to pictures that show the slightest hint of fatigue. The ideal win-win situation for distributors and exhibitors will be films that open with tremendous strength but have short life spans. Hence a tremendous concentration on massive launches.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” insists a distrib. “Basically there are too many pictures in the marketplace, particularly during the summer. So you go for wide release, high terms and quick playoff. Because exhibitors aren’t playing long enough to get really favorable terms, they want pictures that will bring in big crowds and boost concession sales. It’s not a time to release a picture that needs nurturing.”

New realm

“Batman’s” unprecedented screen count takes the new strategy into another dimension. But it recalls the 1975 opening of Universal’s “Jaws,” which set sail on a then-record of 409 theaters; films then normally opened slower and played off over a longer period of time.

That was long before the multiplexing of America, before the practice of buying national TV spots, and before the videocassette industry and significant pay-cable penetration. By the early 1980s, major commercial releases routinely debuted in 1,000 theaters. A decade later, a juggernaut title could command double that number.

Warners has made it clear to exhibs that its terms on “Batman” are writ in stone, with no hope for adjustments after the fact. In major centers, “Batman Forever” has 90%/10% splits for the distrib/exhibs (less house expenses) for its first three weeks and 80%/20% for the next three weeks; or theaters will pay 65% of the aggregate box office for the run – whichever sum is higher.

Still, senior distribution execs agree that some pic engagements will be yanked early from screens to accommodate newer product.

While the “Batman” opening clearly demonstrates the benefits of mammoth release blitzes, the boffo “Congo” opening has spawned a lot of discussion about the effectiveness of tracking studies.

On roughly 13% of the nation’s screens, Paramount’s “Congo” grossed $24.6 million, with its B.O. representing 31% of all theatrical business for the June 9 weekend.

With tracking that indicated a considerably less potent debut, most industryites had predicted a weekend take of $13 million to $15 million; some sources went out on a limb as high as $18 million.

To say that the “Congo” opening took the industry by surprise is to put it mildly.

Further, some anticipated Saturday business would drop for the pic and weekdays would be soft. Instead, the June 9 debut was a dazzling $8.6 million. Saturday’s box office expanded 12% and Monday showed no signs of fatigue with a potent $2.8 million as it headed for a $34 million week.

The adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel posted the best weekend year-to-date and Paramount’s best ever three-day debut. (The studio has had bigger four-day preems including two of its “Indiana Jones” pix, but among traditional weekend spans this is the studio’s tops – bigger than its 1994 surprise “Forrest Gump” by about $200,000.)

The figures had industry trackers double-checking in case there were misprints.

Big margin

While films are routinely over-or underestimated by studio trackers, rarely is the margin of error so wrong. The most recent comparable goof was “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” about 16 months ago.

The prime reason B.O. potential gets skewed low is that awareness studies don’t generally poll folks younger than 16 years old. Paramount did request and pay for specific tracks relating to under-16 demos and to blacks for “Congo.” Both groups registered with strong, positive response about seeing the film.

Yet despite all those plus factors, projections for teens were about $2 million light for the weekend. Across the board, sector by sector, appeal was under-estimated – for the film as a date movie, as a work by author Crichton, and for its science fiction/adventure trappings.

One studio exec said that though interest tracking provides more accurate results than preview screenings, both need to have their test methodologies updated.

Not that anybody is underestimating the openings for “Apollo 13” and “Pocahontas”: The awareness for each film is reading off the meter.

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