LOS ANGELES -- Unclad firearms outgunned flaming arrows at movie box offices over the weekend. "The Naked Gun 2 1/2 : The Smell of Fear" made a surprisingly strong debut, grossing practically $21 million, more than twice the $9.3 million the first "Naked Gun" comedy made in its debut weekend in December 1988.
The summer's first major sequel displaced the summer's first action blockbuster, "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," from the theatrical top spot. In its third weekend, "Robin Hood" grossed $13 million, down nearly 30 percent from the previous weekend's booty. The industry considers that a healthy enough robbing of riches, especially when it adds up to a cumulative treasure trove of $79 million.
"Smell of Fear's" unexpected popularity indicates several things. First, after a slow start, the summer movie season is finally in full swing now that several high-appeal releases have gotten people back into the moviegoing habit.
It also confirms what the staying power of early-summer comedies "What About Bob?" and "City Slickers" suggested: Audiences are in the mood for laughs. And the warm reception given this year's first major warm-weather sequel is in direct contrast to last summer, when too many sequels were released to general viewer indifference.
"I don't think anybody expects a movie to open at this level. We're delighted that it did and ecstatic at its performance," said Barry London, Paramount Pictures' motion picture group president. Paramount, which as of last week had the lowest 1991 market share among the seven major Hollywood studios, released David ("Airplane!") Zucker's gag-laden spoof, which once again stars Leslie Nielsen as bumbling Lt. Frank Drebin.
London attributed "Smell of Fear's" performance to several factors. "It's the appeal of this kind of movie in the environment it was released into," he said. "With the economy in recession, people want to laugh. And obviously, the character of Frank Drebin was something that people wanted to see again."
Other weekend box-office results lend credence to London's observations. While third-ranked "City Slickers" held onto all but about 15 percent of its previous week's ticket sales, the decidedly unfunny, Julia Roberts weepie "Dying Young" lost a death-dealing half of its premiere-weekend business. Falling from third to fifth place, the film that some predicted would be the season's biggest hit is quickly becoming the biggest disappointment this side of "Hudson Hawk."
This could be proof that America's favorite actress is losing her grip. Or, at least, that her standard, sexy Cinderella plot formula needs retirement. Or she needs good gags or gunplay, a la "Pretty Woman" and "Sleeping With the Enemy," for it to really work.
"The Rocketeer," this week's other sophomore holdover, performed better than "Dying" did. Maintaining its fourth-place status, the period adventure held onto 75 percent of its debut business.
Another action attraction, "Backdraft," also continued to keep a tenacious grip on audience shares. In its sixth weekend, Ron Howard's firefighter saga burned off only 25 percent. When the smoke clears sometime today, its total gross will pass $60 million.
"Thelma & Louise" remains the best-performing film of the summer, in terms of percentage. After actually increasing its gross a weekend ago, the controversial road movie fell off negligibly on this most recent leg of what looks like a long journey. The Geena Davis-Susan Sarandon guns-and-bonding vehicle even moved up two notches on the box-office chart, from 10th to eighth place.
So, what does all this tell us? That, as last summer indicated, people are more receptive to comedies.
But also, contrary to last year's results, they still want some action in their summer movies. And that sequels, a concept thought all but dead, are alive and well -- especially with the highly anticipated "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and likely kid-catcher "Problem Child II" lined up to conquer the long, Fourth of July weekend. (Both open tomorrow.)
"The only thing this proves is that there are no rules in this business," London said of the sudden reversal in sequel attractiveness. "Every time there's a pattern developing, something comes along to change that appearance."