For Hollywood, These Are Truly The Dog Days

Stunts like this used to work so well in Hollywood. Columbia Pictures laid out $500,000 in March for a rocket to carry a film promo into orbit--the first advertising in space. But there were technical glitches, and the ship hasn't made it off the ground. And the studio's would-be blockbuster, Last Action Hero, isn't exactly soaring.

It's time for Hollywood's summer flameout. Last Action Hero generated a disappointing $15 million in box-office sales in its first weekend, June 18-20. And with studios rushing to litter America's theaters with a crushing 60 films before the kids head back to school, studio executives are bracing for many more flops where that came from.

TEEN TURNOFFS. A superhyped Jurassic Park, with box-office revenue of $120 million through June 20, is luring moviegoers who might otherwise have stayed home. That has pushed ticket sales so far this summer up 5% from last year, according to industry followers Exhibitor Relations Co. But Steven Spielberg's dinosaur-packed extravaganza is one of the industry's few real hits: Six weeks into the season, the list of disappointments is already hefty (table). A strong advertising campaign by Walt Disney Co. launched Super Mario Bros. to an $8 million opening weekend, but its dark and confused plot soon turned teens toward action films such as Cliffhanger. The lack of a strong teen following also doomed Hot Shots! Part Deux, which quickly fell from sight after a strong first week.

What went wrong on the way to the cash register? The easy answer--and the one studio executives are quick to offer when turnstiles aren't clicking--is that the flicks are stinkers. With an overabundance of choices, moviegoers simply queue up to the next window if word of mouth is bad. "The audience won't go to see a bad film no matter what we do," says Barry L. London, Paramount Pictures Corp.'s president of worldwide distribution.

Columbia executives were confident that with Arnold Schwarzenegger atop the bill, Last Action Hero would easily gross at least $100 million. "Then we got a look at the film," says a senior Columbia executive, "and it just didn't work." Moviegoers agreed: In a survey by market researcher CinemaScore, even hard-core Schwarzenegger fans gave the film lousy marks. Likewise, Paramount did its best to pump up Sliver, Sharon Stone's first film since the erotic blockbuster Basic Instinct. But a muddled story line and a weak ending that was added at the last minute brought a torrent of bad reviews that quickly killed interest.

But there could be more to blame for Hollywood's hard times than a few bad pictures. An increasing number of executives also worry that their audiences are leaving for good. The number of movie tickets sold has declined for three straight years and in six of the last eight. So far this year, moviegoers have spent $1.9 billion, according to the trade paper Daily Variety. That's 2% less than in 1991, despite price hikes of nearly 5% over the same period.

The industry is suffering from the shrinking population of 13-to-25-year-olds, who traditionally see as many as 12 films a year. As that group has aged, their movie trips have dropped to an average of four a year, industry experts say, as more and more would rather stay home with the kids or find other entertainment.

That has brought on some unaccustomed soul-searching. "We have to realize that we're not the only game in town," says Universal Pictures Chairman Thomas Pollack. Universal has slashed its average film budget by 25% and focused more on PG films such as Cop and a Half that are aimed at young parents and their children. With other PG movies such as Dennis the Menace, Sleepless in Seattle, and Free Willy, Hollywood aims to lure the couch potatoes and their broods out of their living rooms. Jurassic Park was edited specifically to maintain its PG-13 rating to encourage broader appeal, Universal executives say.

MINGLE NIGHTS. To draw crowds, some theaters are gearing up new promotions. Free mints await customers at Loews Theaters' 181 locations, while AMC Entertainment Inc. theaters bring in singles with free hors d'oeuvres, soda, and popcorn at one-hour Mingle Nights before some evening shows nationwide. "We wanted to offer an alternative," says Richard Westerling, vice-president for marketing. In fact, attendance at AMC's 246 theaters is slightly ahead of last year.

The rest of the summer is anyone's guess. Reviews of Warner Brothers Inc.'s Dennis the Menace have been mixed. Paramount's The Firm is considered a contender, riding on the heels of the best-selling novel and Tom Cruise's star power. Sleepless in Seattle, from Sony's Tri-Star Pictures unit, has tested well, as has Clint Eastwood's action film In the Line of Fire from Columbia. But rumors of reediting dog Fox's Rising Sun, based on Michael Crichton's other best-selling novel.

It's true, as Tom Sherak, executive vice-president at Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., puts it, that "rumors can kill an otherwise great movie." He still believes Rising Sun will outlast the gossip. But even a decent flick can be killed by inflated expectations. Maybe the real lesson for Hollywood is this: Concentrate more on making better movies and less on hype, and people will come. Are you paying attention, Arnold?

NOTHING'S MOVING             Projected Gross  Current Projected
      BUT THE DINOSAURS             Before Release  Gross
      JURASSIC PARK (Universal)       $150 million  $245 million
      LAST ACTION HERO (Columbia)     $100 million  $44 million
      SLIVER (Paramount)               $75 million  $38 million
      SUPER MARIO BROTHERS (Disney)    $40 million  $22 million
      HOT SHOTS, PART DEUX (Fox)       $50 million  $38 million
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