80/10 rule no guarantee of film success

Showbiz has long wrestled with the following dilemma: What makes audiences rush out to see one film and totally reject another? It’s the latter prospect that has industry mavens particularly concerned this summer, as they roll the dice on 20 megabudget films that could backfire into $50 million to $100 million writeoffs.

A perverse policy of caution has evolved in Hollywood that’s been dubbed the 80/10 rule: Pictures with budgets of more than $80 million or less than $10 million have the best shot at success. However, the studios rarely make the latter.

“In the corporate office, there’s a belief in event pictures and stars,” says a vet producer. “But if you have a relationship story or a small-scale genre piece, you need not apply.”

While actuary tables support the strategy, there have been notable exceptions. Recently, Fox conceded defeat on “Volcano,” already announcing a $40 million loss on the recent pic, and Warner Bros. is facing a sea of red ink with its comedy pairing of Robin Williams and Billy Crystal in “Fathers’ Day.”

The failure of the saga of lava can be partially explained as a lost race: The similarly eruptive “Dante’s Peak” got to theaters first, and there wasn’t enough joltin’ for a couple of molten pics.

But “Fathers’ Day” is more of a puzzle. Its pedigree — stars doing the type of shtick that made them stars, a high-concept premise and a filmmaker with a virtually uninterrupted string of hits — virtually guaranteed success.

In hindsight, one studio marketer said “Fathers’ Day” failed because it looked like a rehash of gags the comedy duo had performed on television. A studio exec offered that no one wanted to see Williams in a subdued role. Some insisted they could see its lackluster results weeks in advance. But these same people still expected that the star tandem would have generated a better opening gross.

The bottom line is that with that type of talent package, none of the majors would have said “no go” to the pic.

Similar dire prospects loom for Fox’s “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” which debuted with $16.1 million last weekend. In the present and imminent competitive field, the action sequel probably shouldn’t expect more than a $60 million domestic box office and — applying last year’s blockbuster trends — an additional $100 million internationally. Under the very, very best of circumstances the film might eventually break even after all revenue streams are accounted; the worst case scenario is a significant write off akin to “Volcano.”

Greenlighting a sequel to a successful movie is another industry no-brainer. Trend analysis shows they usually gross two-thirds of the original and that’s the general direction “The Lost World” is heading. “Speed 2,” on the other hand, is docking in at 50% and cost more than three times what the original cost to make.

Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Domestic Film Group, discounts predictive models, noting that an apparent surefire hit can tank while a seemingly dead genre like horror will produce a sleeper like “Scream.”

“There used to be a more cyclic nature to a genre’s popularity,” observes John Leone, who headed the niche production/distribution outfit American Cinema Releasing in the 1980s. “What we’re seeing today is a sameness of product, and that’s the influence of executives who’ve decided to bet the farm on event films.”

The irony of the present situation is that with so many big-budget extravaganzas in the marketplace simultaneously, a film that once stood out by dint of its size and scope looks quite ordinary in the crowd. Rather than encouraging something novel, the scenario forces an escalation in magnitude that’s reached “Titanic” proportions.

And the inevitable conclusion is that the audience will pick up the wrong scent from one or several of the upcoming blockbusters and some new names will be added to the lexicon that already includes “Heaven’s Gate,” “Howard the Duck” and “Ishtar.”

“Pictures are defined in the public’s mind before they open,” says producer Mark Johnson. “I don’t think you can point to a single reason for this happening. But there’s a buzz that makes ‘Men in Black’ the film everyone wants to see on opening day while another develops a taint that can’t be removed.”

There’s also another factor that defies trend analysis — quality. When all is said and done, how does the entertainment quotient translate in dollars and cents. With so much at stake financially, one can understand the importance of big openings for big pictures. Without them, even a supposed unsinkable ship is sunk.

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