July 19, 1996 in Seven

Moviemakers Learn New Lessons Every Time A Film Opens

Terry Lawson Detroit Free Press

Don’t cry for Quasimodo, at least not for the wrong reasons. While the relatively soft opening of Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” may be the season’s biggest surprise, “Hunchback” can still be counted on to ring enough cash register bells to end up as one of the top five summer movies.

“Eraser,” the film that bested “Hunchback” at the box office its first weekend, however, probably will be erased from most multiplex screens before the end of August, and with a budget of at least $80 million, can expect to make its profit in video and international markets.

With half of Movie Summer ‘96 behind us and the last two blockbusters opened this week, it’s not too early to assess who will be making out and who will be making excuses. The Hollywood studios so assiduously track the prospects of every big-budget movie they release, using research data and screening reactions, that they usually can predict any opening weekend gross within a few million or so.

When they err, it’s generally because they’ve miscalculated the intensity of a specific market, such as the sci-fi freaks who sent “Stargate” to the stratosphere or the preteens who turned “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” into a phenomenon. Still, every summer teaches its own specific, kindergarten-level lessons, and here’s what’s can be gleaned from term A of summer preschool 1996.

Get up early: No one, save a few easily influenced radio reviewers, thought “Twister” was a great movie. But by staking out the earliest possible weekend berth and scaring off the competition, Warner was able to rack up a momentum-building $80 million before “Mission: Impossible” opened two weeks later. There are a few people who believe “Independence Day” can still best it as the season’s biggest moneymaker, but most of them believe in alien life.

Have a nice personality: Say what you want about escalating salaries, stars still sell summer tickets. The presence of Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible” made it a must-see with females as well as males, turning a surefire $100 million grosser into a $160 million steamroller. Ditto for “The Rock” (Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage), while the perfectly presentable but starless “The Phantom” lived up to its name and disappeared. Even the mediocre to abysmal reviews for “Eraser” couldn’t deter the Schwarzenegger faithful, who were just happy he wasn’t going all gooey on them. On the other hand …

Don’t pretend to be something you’re not: Maybe Jim Carrey’s fans didn’t want to see him going all “serious” in “The Cable Guy” which opened with about half the gross (in both senses of the word) of “Ace Ventura 2.” Or maybe they just didn’t appreciate the lack of conviction Columbia showed when they tried to lighten the film’s much-touted “darkness” with goofy last minute re-shoots. In any case, they didn’t like it. Likewise for “Striptease,” which Castle Rock first told us was wildly sexy, then tried to convince us was just funny. Nobody’s laughing now.

Keep it simple: Industry types are convinced that all the reviews and advance stories saying “Hunchback” was intelligent and, worse, adult, actually kept some families away. Maybe it would have opened bigger if they had moved the story to Utah and called it “The Hunchback of the Mormon Tabernacle.”

Universal Pictures, by contrast, went out of its way to assure us “The Nutty Professor” was just nutty, not professorial, a bet that paid off. As for whoever had the idea of counter-programming the no-brainers with higher-brow items like “Moll Flanders,” he or she should be forced to sit through it again.

But don’t act stupid: Moviegoers may not want to be overly taxed in the summer, but neither do they want to be underestimated. With the arguable exception of “Eraser,” all the lowest-common-denominator movies, usually identified with titles of less than three syllables - “Eddie,” “Flipper,” “Spy Hard” - tanked quicker than you could say “duh.”

No talking dragons: Self-explanatory.

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