Hollywood's formula for film success may have stopped working in 1991


LOS ANGELES -- Every movie year has its trends, and 1991 was no different. But if there was one overriding theme to the dozen months just past, it was irony.

Not just because actresses, that long-exploited segment of the industry working class, took up arms on screen ("Silence of the Lambs," "Thelma & Louise," "Terminator 2").

Nor was it because their male counterparts, who have been feeding high on the macho-movie hog for a decade, suddenly seemed to have mass sensitivity attacks ("Regarding Henry," "The Fisher King," "Terminator 2").

Irony also permeated executive suites, as the preceding decade's formulas for success began to run out of steam -- an inevitable phenomenon in a fashion-oriented business like the movies, perhaps exacerbated by a recession.

People still seemed to like Kevin Costner and Arnold Schwarzenegger in anything, no matter how good ("Dances With Wolves," "T2") or bad ("Robin Hood Prince of Thieves," "Kindergarten Cop"). But they were about it.

Such supposed superstars as Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Robin Williams, Harrison Ford, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito, Al Pacino and even that mighty mite, Macaulay Culkin, had poor-to-middling follow-ups to their megahits of only a year or so ago.

Nobody exemplified this love-'em-or-leave-'em-alone phenomenon more dramatically than the year's two top female stars.

Julia Roberts rode residual "Pretty Woman" popularity to a $100 million gross for last February's suspense potboiler, "Sleeping With the Enemy." But her mediocre summer romance, "Dying Young," made less than half that amount.

Jodie Foster accompanied the excellent thriller "The Silence of the Lambs" through the roof last winter. But her self-starring directing debut, "Little Man Tate," performed below expectations last fall. Though inferior to "Lambs," Foster's family drama was often effective and earned enough critical acclaim to, presumably, attract a wider audience.

Historically, it's not unusual for stars, or directors, to experience popularity fluctuations from project to project. In the '80s, however, Hollywood caught star fever worse than ever before; ++ no matter how wretched the movie, a few popular names above the title seemed to guarantee profit.

The end of that era, as shocking as producers may initially find it, is probably a healthy thing in the long run, leading to lower salaries and fewer ancillary demands from power-egoed performers.

A more disturbing -- and rather unprecedented -- 1991 trend was the failure of blockbusters to save overextended production entities. Orion Pictures, which made hundreds of millions of dollars off of "Dances With Wolves" and "Silence of the Lambs," is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

On a smaller scale, the near-lifeless carcass of venerable MGM, which had a small success with "Thelma & Louise" and lousy luck with everything else this year, is being fought over by deposed Italian owner Giancarlo Paretti and his former financial backers in a Delaware court.

And in a larger picture, the three major studios recently acquired by Japanese supercorporations -- Matsushita's Universal Pictures and Sony's Columbia and TriStar entities -- appear to have scraped the bottoms of their parent companies' deep pockets.

Universal already has instituted a smaller-is-beautiful policy, while industrywide angst over whether TriStar's "Hook" ever can turn a profit indicates a fear that, despite their repeated statements to the contrary, Hollywood's Japanese owners may be losing patience with their American managers.

In fact, 1991 grosses were down only about 4 percent from 1990, which was the second-best year in the industry's history. This year will probably come in third overall, which wouldn't be bad, except that a good chunk of that money is the result of inflated ticket prices. For the first time in 15 years, the number of individual admissions dipped below 1 billion.

Meanwhile, production costs rose even as audiences were eroding. The average studio feature now costs around $28 million to make; big-star, high-profile vehicles have price tags in multiples of that.

And rarely, in the recent past, have films flopped quite as resoundingly as the turkeys of '91 did. Sure, "Hudson Hawk" was not history's first big-ticket bomb; since 1980's "Heaven's Gate," one or two such items have become all but an annual tradition. This year, however, too many midrange prestige features ("Frankie and Johnny," "Other People's Money," "At Play in the Fields of the Lord") and lowbrow programmers ("Dutch," "Return to the Blue Lagoon," "Another You") failed to recoup anywhere close to their investments, draining studio treasuries of dozens of millions of dollars.

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