In a disastrous summer, many films are dying unseen

HOLLYWOOD — HOLLYWOOD -- The head of a major movie studio sighed deeply yesterday morning as he surveyed the box-office wreckage of the past two weeks. "I'm scared," he said. "The business is frightening."

What's frightening more than one studio executive is the failure of so many recent releases, films that have appeared and disappeared almost with the flicker of an eye. Rarely has Hollywood seen seven or eight films, opening over two weekends, collapse without a trace.


"Everything is in free fall," said Tom Sherak, senior vice president of 20th Century Fox, who blames competition from the Summer Olympics for the disastrous box-office returns.

Hollywood executives often prefer blaming some outside force to account for a film's failure; the Olympic games are the current whipping boy.


But others say the derivative quality of some of the new films, coupled with filmgoers' increasingly fickle tastes, is responsible for the downturn.

The one new film whose box-office failure has surprised several studio executives is "Multiplicity," a comedy starring Michael Keaton as a man who clones himself. The movie, produced by Columbia and directed by Harold Ramis, received mixed reviews but was generally regarded as a potential blockbuster comedy.

It has grossed less than $14 million in two weeks, making it the studio's second major disappointment after "Cable Guy," starring Jim Carrey.

Another studio that has endured two failures in a row is MGM/UA. Over the past two weekends, the buddy-action movie "Fled" has taken in only $10 million at the box office, while last weekend "Kingpin," a comedy starring Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid, grossed just $5.2 million, according to the Exhibitor Relations Co., which monitors box-office returns.

Other recent films that have been big disappointments include "The Adventures of Pinocchio," "The Frighteners," "Kazaam," "Joe's Apartment" and "Harriet the Spy."

In contrast, the Warner Brothers courtroom drama "A Time to Kill," adapted from a John Grisham novel, opened successfully over the weekend, grossing $14.9 million.

That made "A Time to Kill" No. 1 at the box office, displacing the summer's biggest hit, "Independence Day," which dropped to second place but which has already grossed more than $220 million in its first month.

The Grisham novel is about a black man in Mississippi who takes revenge against two white thugs who rape his young daughter. Joel Schumacher, the director of "A Time to Kill," attributed the film's early success to several factors.


"It's John Grisham's best book," he said. "Besides, there is this fascination with the justice system."

But Schumacher also offered what was perhaps the main reason for the film's success.

"To be honest," he said, "you just get lucky."

Casey Silver, chairman of the MCA Motion Picture Group, which includes Universal Studios, said that the sheer volume of films -- three or four opening each weekend -- was destructive.

"It's clutter and survival of the fittest," he said in an interview. "There are too many movies. Pictures get knocked out on their first week."

"All of this contributes to the escalation of star salaries," he said. "How do you break through the clutter? How do you distinguish yourself from the five or six other films opening against you? You get a star."


But high-priced stars are, of course, hardly a guarantee of box-office success. "Independence Day" is without a single major star. So was "Twister," which has grossed more than $230 million. ("Independence Day" will certainly surpass "Twister" at the box office in the next two weeks.)

Marvin Antonowsky, a veteran studio marketing specialist, said: "Why have so many films failed? It's a question of what the films are about. It's a question of too many films being released at the same time. And there's the Olympics.

"But if people want to see a film, they'll see it, Olympics or not. The problem is, people just don't want to see a lot of these films. And a lot of these films shouldn't have been made in the first place."

Among the films that unexpectedly emerged from the pack over the summer are three that, executives said, tapped into specific audiences.

"The Nutty Professor," Eddie Murphy's first success after a series of flops, has grossed more than $100 million. Not only is the film funny, especially to teen-agers, but it is one of the few comedies of the summer. (The only other major one was the failed "Cable Guy.")

"Phenomenon," starring John Travolta as an ordinary man with extraordinary powers, has grossed $72 million. The film's unexpected success is largely based on Travolta's appeal and a story that appeals to women, one of the few summer films to do so.


"Courage Under Fire," a drama that takes place during and after the Persian Gulf war, is perhaps the most critically acclaimed film of the summer. Starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan, and directed by Ed Zwick, "Courage Under Fire" is viewed by studio executives as one of the rare "grown-up" studio films of the summer, one that doesn't pander to the audience.

The film has grossed about $35 million and is inching toward box-office success.

Mark Gill, president of marketing for Miramax, whose "Trainspotting" is in limited release but has been drawing large crowds, noted that the early part of the summer was marked by expensive and successful blockbusters like "Independence Day," "Twister" and "The Rock."

"There were so many hits early on," he said. "But it couldn't go on forever. The dream was nice while it lasted. But dreams do end. And reality finally set in."

Pub Date: 7/30/96