Hook Has Hollywood Waiting With Baited Breath

In Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie's classic, Peter urges children to clap if they believe in fairies. If they clap hard enough, Peter promises, they will revive a dying Tinkerbell.

Too bad life doesn't really imitate art. If it did, Hollywood would be applauding till its hands went numb. Its fervent hope: that the Dec. 11 opening of Hook, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the Barrie play, will awaken a box office that's entering its eighth narcoleptic month.

Hook, the reasoning goes, could be one of those "event films"--a must-see that will get customers back into the theaters. Hollywood could use the business: Box-office receipts so far this year are off more than $163.5 million, according to Daily Variety. The decline--4.3% from a year ago and 6% from 1989--has come about even though ticket prices have increased. Except for a brief flurry during July, when Terminator II and Robin Hood did a land-office business, receipts have been sliding since April. This summer's box office was off by 25% from 1990 and was the lowest since 1971. There hasn't been much of a pickup since. "We're running out of reasons why we can't get people into the theaters--are they just staying home watching TV, playing parlor games, or what?" frets Tom Sherak, executive vice-president for marketing at News Corp.'s Twentieth Century-Fox FilmCorp. unit. It's highly likely that budget-conscious consumers are passing up increasingly costly trips to the local Bijou. But exhibitors pin most of the blame on Hollywood's inability to make pictures that audiences want to see.

For much of the past year, Hollywood has been retrenching. Studios have slashed production budgets and put marginal products on hold. But no executive worth his table at Spago is going to trust in frugality during the crucial six weeks from Thanksgiving to Christmas, a season that can account for as much as 25% of annual box office receipts.

BIG GUNS. So Hollywood is rolling out the big guns (table). Paramount Pictures, in the midst of a management shuffle, is putting heavy marketing and merchandising muscle behind The Addams Family, the spin-off from the 1960s' TV show that it picked up in March for $14.6 million from ailing Orion Pictures Corp. It is also trotting out its sixth Star Trek flick, promoting the 25th anniversary of the sci-fi TV show.

The names are familiar over at Warner Bros. Inc., too: Oliver Stone's JFK stars Kevin Costner as a New Orleans prosecutor investigating President Kennedy's assassination, and Bruce Willis stars in The Last Boy Scout.

Most eyes are on Sony Corp., however, which has spent lavishly to rejuvenate its two film subsidiaries, Tri-Star and Columbia Pictures. Tri-Star's Hook, which stars Robin Williams as the grown-up Peter Pan and Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook, came in three weeks late and $11 million over its $49 million budget.

Sony's film units could have another winner with Columbia's The Prince of Tides, a drama featuring Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte. With gangster movies generally bombing, there's less confidence about another project, Tri-Star's Bugsy, a love story that features Warren Beatty as gangster Bugsy Siegel.

The crush of yearend films could be too much for a sluggish market to absorb, and good films could get lost in the crowd. Possible wallflowers this year include Disney's Father of the Bride, which stars Steve Martin in a remake of the 1950 Spencer Tracy-Elizabeth Taylor film. Or it might be Fox's For the Boys, featuring Bette Midler as the lead singer of a USO troupe.

Then again, Martin and Midler could make it big while Spielberg & Co. bomb. That would probably be acceptable in Hollywood. Right now, any hit will be magic enough.

                             Percent                     Millions
      CENTURY-FOX            14.4 %       For the Boys          $33
      WARNER                 13.4         The Last Boy Scout     28
      BROS.                               JFK                    35
      DISNEY                 12.3         Billy Bathgate         45
         Father of the Bride    30
         Beauty and the Beast   28
      UNIVERSAL              11.1         Cape Fear              35
         American Tail 2        25
      ORION                  10.5                 --                --
      TRI-STAR               10.2         Hook                   60
         Bugsy                  40
      COLUMBIA                9.5         The Prince of Tides    27
      PARAMOUNT               9.1         The Addams Family      30
         Star Trek VI           30
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