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Exhibs Forecast Bleak Outlook For 1st-qtr. Pix

The holiday season has had its share of good cheer-from Disney’s seat-stuffer “The Santa Clause” to plain goofball fun from New Line’s “Dumb and Dumber.” Among newcomers, Sony’s “Little Women” and Warner Bros.’ “Richie Rich” also smell green.

The powerhouse titles may be few, but collectively the product is packing the multiplexes. While holiday releases are drawing better than industry mavens predicted, exhibitors are wringing their hands over the low-wattage release slate for the first quarter of the new year.

In 1994, six films released during the first quarter ultimately grossed $40 million or better domestically. Four of those films opened after mid-March, leaving “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “On Deadly Ground” – both from Warner Bros. – to do the brunt of their box office during the initial 90-day span.

This year, “the films don’t look at all encouraging,” says Dan Harkins, who operates the Phoenix-based 80-screen Harkins chain. “I think that I ought to be looking for a buyer when I look at the list of upcoming product. But seriously, something will come along that galvanizes audiences. I just wouldn’t want to make a guess about what’s going to click.”

There’s certainly no lack of product for the first 13 weeks of the new year, with some 50 films on the books to debut or go into wide release during the period. The mix includes animal films for the kids, a clutch of horror yarns (including three derived from the works of Clive Barker) and a lot of seemingly dumb, dumber and dumbest comedies.

What’s missing from the recipe is an abundance of star vehicles, prestige pix for Oscar season, sequels and a really big extravaganza. A year ago, such films as “Schindler’s List,” “Philadelphia,” “In the Name of the Father” and “The Piano” provided a lot of commercial juice between January and March.

This year’s Oscar contenders, including “Forrest Gump,” “The Lion King” and “Pulp Fiction,” have already had their major B.O. success; such faded glories as “Quiz Show” and “The Shawshank Redemption” may or may not receive a relaunch when Oscar nominations are announced. Only TriStar’s “Legends of the Fall” and Fox’s “Nell” are likely to see a benefit from expansion in early 1995. It’s unlikely they can come close to equaling the success of last year’s first-quarter films.

Also unlikely to repeat is 1994’s carryover business of 1993 holiday releases. “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “The Pelican Brief,” “Grumpy Old Men” and “Beethoven’s 2nd” together generated more than $200 million in 1994. The prospects for commercial spillover in 1995 from “The Santa Clause,” “Dumb and Dumber,” “Disclosure” and “Street Fighter” might be half that amount.

“So much of what happens is luck and chance,” says Fox senior VP Tom Sherak. “There is no clearinghouse. No one sits on high and tells distributors what films to make and when to release them. Suddenly you will see a lot of pictures with similar themes or similar appeal, or a lot of sequels or whatever. You can only work with what you have and maneuver as best you can to maximize potential in the marketplace.”

That’s likely to mean a lot of last-minute shuffling by distributors. Theater owners are crossing their fingers in hopes that some hot title earmarked for later in the year might suddenly advance to the winter or spring sesh.

Like last year, Warner Bros, has the most impressive lineup on paper for the opening quarter. Its slate has star power in the form of Whoopi Goldberg in the female bonding comedy “Boys on the Side” (Feb. 3), Sean Connery in legal thriller “Just Cause” (Feb. 17) and Dustin Hoffman in the environmental actioner “Outbreak” (March 10). The only other bona fide box office star on view will be Sharon Stone in Sinbad, on Jan. 6. Most are niche comedies ranging from the kids caper “Heavyweights” (Feb. 17) to “The Jerky Boys” (Feb. 10) and the romantic pairing of Chevy Chase and Farrah Fawcett in “Man of the House” (March 3).

Richard Blacklock of Distributor Services says the Disney dimension is the biggest unknown. “No one saw ‘Santa Clause’ coming and no one is quite sure whether ‘ House-guest’ or ‘Miami Rhapsody’ (Jan. 27) has the stuff to connect big with audiences and at the box office,” he says. “My guess is that ‘ My Posse Don’t Do Homework’ with Michelle Pfeiffer could be their breakout picture.”

But “Posse” has had to stay after school for reshoots, meaning it probably won’t open until April or May. Those seeking school ties will have to enroll in John Singleton’s “Higher Learning” (Jan. 13), a young adult drama of race and sexuality from Columbia.

A few other serious adult dramas also will take the spring plunge. The most conspicuous is Buena Vista’s “Jefferson in Paris” (March 31), with Nick Nolte as the statesman, and the screen version of “The Basketball Diaries” (March 17) from New Line with Leonardo Di-Caprio starring in the tale of addiction. Savoy has “Circle of Friends” (March 15) with Chris O’Donnell, while ethnic families figure in Miramax’s Al Pacino vehicle “Two Bits” (Feb. 10) and Goldwyn’s Cuban “The Perez Family” (March 10).

The biggest surprise may be the re-emergence of horror movies. New Line has a potential franchise with Robert Englund as “The Mangler” (March 3) and the tale of a horror writer whose shocking words come to life in “In the Mouth of Madness” (Feb. 3). Shockmeister Clive Barker wrote and directed “Lord of Illusion,” which MGM/UA unveils on Feb. 17, and sequels to his popular tales pop up via Miramax with “Hellraiser 4” (March 24) and from Gramercy with “Candyman 2” (March 17). Sony has a new Stephen King saga with Castle Rock’s “Dolores Claiborne” (March 24) and Universal provides a tale from the crypt titled “Demon Knight” (Jan. 13).

“What we’re seeing is a season of two-week programmers,” says indie film booker Ed Pemika. “There are a lot of genre pictures and I’d be surprised if more than one demonstrated staying power. These films have to be really good and none of the horror entries looks particularly special. Maybe the hot picture will be the new ‘Kiss of Death’ (March 31) with David Caruso or ‘Tank Girl’ (March 24), which MGM is touting as a female ‘Mad Max.’ “

Pemika and others also have little faith in a string of family films that feature animals. They include Fox’s “Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog” (Jan. 13); Warner Bros.’ China-set “Little Panda” (sometime in February) and “The Great Ape Escape” (March 17); MGM/UA’s reincarnated dog “Fluke” (March 3) and its animated “The Pebble and the Penguin” (March 31); and Miramax’s smart pig “Gordy” (March 17).

The biggest curiosity is unquestionably Paramount’s “The Brady Bunch Movie” (Feb. 17), which industry mavens hope will be a camp hit and not a cultural fiasco.

Most agree with Sherak about doing the best with the hand that’s dealt. They would just rather be looking at a full house with a lot of royal faces than going for the long odds and drawing into a potential inside straight.

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