With the prestige pictures of autumn and the holidays about to land, movie executives are trying to draw some final lessons from the vexing summer of ‘96.
It was a 17-week moviegoing period that featured huge blockbusters and ticket sales up 1 percent over last year, yet suffered an Olympic-size box-office flameout from which the industry still hasn’t fully recovered.
It was a tough time for numerous family films (anybody actually see “Flipper,” “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” “Alaska” or “The Stupids”?) and a mixed one for star vehicles (the disappointing “Cable Guy,” “Striptease” and “Jack” were balanced by the success of “Nutty Professor” and “Mission: Impossible”). The biggest stars, however, were the special effects of “Independence Day” and “Twister.”
And in a bit of counter-intuitive thinking, Hollywood-style, the concept that small-budget films are riskier than big-budget ones was reinforced.
So exactly what lessons were learned depend, of course, upon whom you ask. And nobody knows if any of this will even apply next summer, with the “Jurassic Park” sequel and a bulging pack of “event” films already scrambling studio plans.
Martin Schafer, president of Castle Rock Entertainment, says he’s learned to resist the temptation of some kid-friendly films.
“The death of the family movie - that is the footnote for summer ‘96,” he said. “We had a beautiful film this summer called ‘Alaska.’ It cost $18 million and by any standard was extremely well-made for that price … a beautiful family film. Then you see other films like ‘Kazaam,’ ‘Carpool,’ ‘Matilda,’ ‘Harriet’ and ‘Flipper’ tank. Even ‘A Very Brady Sequel,’ which opened to strong critical reviews and followed the success of a previous hit, fell short.
“I guess the only thing anyone in this business can think is that parents are hypocritical when they demand kid movies but don’t take their kids to see them,” he added. “I’m sad to say this, but I will certainly think 17 times before I make another ‘Alaska.”’
Even Disney’s animated “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which has taken in $97 million domestically, didn’t come close to the studio’s earlier animated blockbusters, such as “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.”
Bill Mechanic, president of 20th Century Fox, who hails from Disney and knows the genre inside out, saw the demise of traditional family fare coming.
“We made a strategic move to get out of the kid movie business, as we’ve known it, a year ago,” said Mechanic, whose studio released the summer’s biggest blockbuster, “Independence Day.” “Kid-oriented movies have been in trouble. (PG-13-rated) ‘Nutty Professor’ and ‘Independence Day’ have become the kid movies, the new family films.
“‘ID4’ worked this summer because it was fresh, something different. But if you look at the action genre overall, what you learned from this summer was that it needs reinvention. You can’t get away with just explosions and a big action star anymore. Look at ones that didn’t work as well as they would have in summers past.”
A prime example is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s costly “Eraser,” which finally cracked $100 million at the box office this week - its 13th week in theaters. By comparison, Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery’s “The Rock” and Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” hit nine figures much quicker.
But all three of these starstudded action films were outdone by two films with far lower star wattage.
“I don’t want to overstate the obvious, but there’s a reason why ‘Twister,’ which was first out, and ‘ID4’ did well,” Mechanic said. “Special effects was the star.”
And now, he says, Hollywood will have to keep upping the ante in that realm as well. But such hefty spending makes pictures more, not less, appealing to produce, according to some in the industry.
“Except for the interruption of the Olympics midstream, a little armchair analysis would probably leave you with this: It is less risky to make five $80 million-plus pictures than five $20 million pictures,” said Craig Jacobson, of the entertainment law office of Hansen, Jacobson, Teller & Hoberman, which represents several top Hollywood clients.
“Now that you’ve caught your breath try and understand the reasoning: Maybe the potential loss is so much less on a smaller budget picture, but the hunger for movie spectacular is so much greater.”
So what’s the forecast for next summer’s strategy? Ask producer Mark Gordon, who rolled out the 1994 sleeper hit “Speed” and who is working on Paramount’s “The Flood,” an action thriller starring Christian Slater, Morgan Freeman, Randy Quaid and Minnie Driver, planned for next summer. The budget is said to be between $60 million and $70 million.
“I know what people are saying but I don’t look around at the trends now and build my picture from there. It doesn’t mean anything,” Gordon said. “It comes down to simply telling the best story you can for the best price you can. That’s the real economics.”