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LOW POINTS: Not to put too fine a point on it, but 1997 was a lousy year for Warner Bros.’ theatrical business — maybe the weakest in modern memory. The studio’s once-dependable hitmaking formula of big budgets plus big stars — whose fat paychecks were supposed to be justified by their ability to open a movie — seemed suddenly to lose some of its box office magic, and for the first time in years, Warners earned a total of $677 million in domestic ticket sales, to find itself in third place in the receipts race, trailing Sony’s unexpectedly phenomenal year and the predictably strong Disney.

“Clearly, this year domestic theatrically has been disappointing for us,” said Robert Daly, chairman of Warner Bros. “We have had some movies that did not live up to what we thought they would do.”

Now celebrating its 75th anniversary as a studio, Warners is one of the most venerable contributors to the Hollywood dream machine, but this year one project after another failed to break into blockbuster status and provide the kind of sturdy tentpole the studio so desperately needed. With no real box office hits to its credit, even the moderate performers were branded failures, providing more ammunition — both gossiped and published — for the increasingly popular sport of attacking the WB moviemaking machinery. An industryful of Monday-morning quarterbacks have charged that the studio is out of touch with today’s audience, that it’s stuck in a 1980s mode of filmmaking and unable to get out in front of the curve far enough to find the next big thing.

The attacks, naturally, have been floating through the executive suites, as well. Industry observers have said company chairmen Daly and Terry Semel have not given sufficient green-lighting authority to production co-prexies Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Billy Gerber, who were promoted to their posts in 1996. And without that authority, it’s impossible to evaluate the work of Gerber and Di Bonaventura.

On the lot, change came with the sudden firing of marketing president Chris Pula, who had been at the company almost exactly one year when the long-running rumors of his departure finally came true. The official word was that while the pinkslipping of Pula had really not been long-considered in the top executive suites, his relatively brash managerial style caused frequent and unwelcome turbulence within the studio’s marketing machinery. He simply didn’t fit in, according to studio sources.

MIDDLING MARKS: The Mel Gibson-Julia Roberts pairing in “Conspiracy Theory” grossed a strong but ultimately disappointing $76 million. Not a stone-cold failure, certainly, but with stars like Gibson and Roberts on the payroll, the muddled “Conspiracy” needed to make more to justify its expense. Daly, however, called “Conspiracy” “a very profitable movie for us” — even if it didn’t hit the C-note mark.

The younger-skewing “Batman & Robin” was bulked up with a million bytes of computer-generated visual effects and a panoply of big names, including George Clooney as the cowled crusader, Alicia Silverstone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie slid down the batpole with $107 million domestically, according to WB’s Daly — which is nothing to flip your cape at, unless you compare it with the previous chapter in the “Batman” franchise, which grossed $50 million more than “B&R.” Strong sales in bat-related consumer product merchandising added considerably to profits, however.

Like “Conspiracy,” the newest Batman installment didn’t so much fail, as fail to hit. Ditto WB’s pic about evil lawyers from hell, “The Devil’s Advocate.” Grossing $58 million as of Dec. 31, the fall Al Pacino-Keanu Reeves vehicle was the studio’s fourth most successful film.

In “Contact,” Robert Zemeckis sent star Jodie Foster on an interstellar voyage to Vega. She came back with $100 million in grosses, but the high costs of production and marketing of the effects-laden film overwhelmed even the box office take, and ultimately prevented the film from filling the black hole Warner Bros. had dug itself into with a string of bombs, such as “Free Willy 3: The Rescue” ($3.5 million) and the Shaquille O’Neal starring “Steel” ($1.7 million.)

Warner Bros.’ stream of disappointments really began with the summer comedy “Fathers Day,” starring a seemingly surefire combination of comic thesps Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. It bombed in theaters, generating a not-at-all-funny $28 million. But the most visible breakdown of the star-driven style of moviemaking that has seen Warners through much of the last decade or two arrived with the Costa-Gavras directed “Mad City,” which paired Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta, yet dredged up only $10 million.

” ‘Fathers Day’ and ‘Mad City’ were in my mind the biggest disappointments because we had such high hopes for them,” said Daly.

The Clint Eastwood-directed “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” didn’t stay on anybody’s bestseller lists very long, earning about $23 million. Nor did “Mars Attacks!,” Tim Burton’s campy homage to science fiction B-movies, which charmed less than $10 million out of theatergoers.

The brightest spot in the studio’s year came as critical, if not a financial, windfall with the awards-grabbing “L.A. Confidential.” The Curtis Hanson helmed film took in a better-than-expected $37 million, but more important, however, the film, winner of numerous critics’ awards, has emerged as Warners’ best shot at Oscar glory.

The noiresque ensemble drama — funded by Arnon Milchan’s New Regency and distributed by Warners — turned out to be a bittersweet victory: “L.A. Confidential” was the last film to come of the co-production deal between WB and New Regency, which ended during the summer, before NR shifted over to Fox.

It was an untimely loss for Warners: The studio also ended its deal with producer Arnold Kopelson last year, and has been scrambling to replace those losses with new deals, such as a co-production deal inked late in the year with Australian-owned Village Roadshow pictures.

LOOKING FORWARD: For 1998, Warners — like every other studio in town — sorely needs a few good hits. It doesn’t appear, however, as if the studio has a prayer of regaining much momentum until well into spring or summer. WB entered the new year on the doleful hoofbeats of the undeliverable Kevin Costner post-apocalyptic western, “The Postman,” the studio’s last-ditch attempt to salvage some success in ’97. But by the end of the year, the expensive film was flailing, with barely $10 million in its first week on the block.

The studio currently plans to release 26 new films in 1998, but only four during January and February. One of WB’s first entries of the year will be the Denzel Washington starrer “Fallen,” slated for a mid-January bow. But the winter film with the most potential — and potential disappointment — is Barry Levinson’s “Sphere,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone. As yet no buzz has built up around the film, and it’s tough to predict its reception.

Despite charges by some that Warners’ style of moviemaking is obsolete, there is every chance a few of these old-fashioned movies will hit, and hit big next year. Certainly, for the studio, a lot is riding on the hypothesis that there’s nothing terribly wrong in Burbank, except for that run of bad luck.

Observers inside and outside the studio are excited about the prospects of “U.S. Marshals,” due out in March and starring Tommy Lee Jones, who will reprise the show-stealing role that he made famous in 1993’s “The Fugitive.”

A few more big-budget pics that could provide the cash flow Warners needs to turn things around will appear in summer and winter. Due out in the summer is Weintraub Prods.’ “The Avengers,” updating the 1960s British TV spy series with Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman and Sean Connery. With a relatively modest estimated budget of $50 million, the movie could turn a very handsome profit.

Expected in July is the suddenly fast-tracked “Lethal Weapon 4,” the newest addition to Mel Gibson’s police pic action franchise. But the film, thrust into pre-production in the fall after studio chiefs scheduled it for a summer release, is on a tight production pathway.

Late May will see the release of animated feature “Quest for Camelot.” Ironically, it will be the first full-length animated feature from Warners, even through the studio decades ago established a permanent seat in the animation pantheon with short subject cartoons starring characters such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

Unless it has a good supply of luck this year, Warners may find itself hoping once again for a solid holiday season to pull itself out of the doldrums. Not till winter is the highly anticipated, years-in-the-making, Stanley Kubrick-directed “Eyes Wide Shut” due, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in an erotic thriller.

And again, the end of the year will see another Costner movie debut: the romantic drama “Message in a Bottle.”

And finally, “You Have Mail,” the Nora Ephron production that will reunite the “Sleepless in Seattle” duo of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, will close out the year. If the two dependable actors can replicate their onscreen chemistry, Warners could easily have a hit — one that may help deliver the studio from its depression.

— Paul Karon