New York — Hang onto your popcorn, moviegoers, and get ready for another rush of big-budget blockbusters. Variety, the show-business newspaper, says Hollywood has launched a spending spree that would have drawn a double take from Cecil B. De Mille himself.
As of now, about 20 movies are headed toward the starting gate with budgets of more than $20 million. After distribution and promotion costs are figured in, the break-even mark will be at least $50 million per picture - a point that's considered reachable by no more than 10 films a year, at most.
As calculated by industry analyst Lawrence Cohn, the ''leading offender'' in the new spending craze is Columbia Pictures, with five $25 million-plus movies in the works. ''Tootsie,'' a Dustin Hoffman comedy due at Christmas, is tagged at $30 million and February's ''Blue Thunder,'' an action picture about an aerial police force, at even more. Also on tap are the fantastic ''Krull,'' full of special effects, and Richard Attenborough's four-hour ''Gandhi,'' plus Richard Pryor in ''The Toy,'' a remake of a modestly successful French comedy.
And these new budget busters are being planned at a time when the current hits carry much lower price tags. ''E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial'' and ''On Golden Pond,'' for example, both cost less than ''Rocky III,'' which cost just $ 17 million. By contrast, the expensive ''Annie'' has barely earned back its production costs of more than $40 million.
Why is Hollywood pouring so many dollars into its new productions? Industry analyst Lawrence Cohn reports that each of these ''megabuck'' projects was developed or backed by nonstudio ''independent'' investors. By spreading financial risk over a number of capital sources, this practice reduces the major distributors' liability to an acceptable level.
Still, the imminent wave of high-price films comes as a surprise just two years after ''Heaven's Gate'' lost $44 million for United Artists (UA), and sent a wave of financial panic through Tinseltown. The only studio that clearly learned a lesson from that disaster is Paramount Pictures, which has only one giant on its release schedule, the $28 million ''A Woman for All Time.''
Or maybe Paramount is still reeling from its experience with the first 'Star Trek'' film, which made little profit - despite huge attendance - because its $ 42 million cost gobbled up most of its revenue. More sensibly, the current ''Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan'' was made for a little more than $10 million, and should turn its popularity into profit. It's reportedly No. 3 in the summer box-office sweepstakes.
While each of Columbia's ambitious investments will cost up to $15 million for promotion, in addition to the filmmaking expense, Variety estimates they will bring only ''limited financial exposure'' to the company. The secret is a web involving such resources as tax-shelter funding from West Germany, private partnerships, and a ''pre-buy deal'' from Home Box Office on cable television. Still, the overall Columbia budget picture is a far cry from last year's, when the studio's most expensive item was ''Absence of Malice'' with Paul Newman, reaching the screen for just $13 million.
Even UA, home of the ''Heaven's Gate'' scare, has apparently recovered from that shock. Now part of MGM/UA, after its acquisition by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, it has hopes in a new James Bond thriller - whose costs could hit $30 million - and a slightly cheaper ''Yentl,'' a dramatic love story, as well as a distribution deal for the independently produced Korean war movie ''Inchon,'' reportedly financed by the controversial Unification Church. Twentieth Century-Fox, winding up a rocky summer season, is gambling big on ''High Road to China.'' Also coming up is the next ''Star Wars'' sequel, ''Revenge of the Jedi,'' though that can hardly be considered a gamble. It will conclude Luke Skywalker's adventures at a cost of $32.5 million.
Universal, riding high with the ''E.T.'' and other hits, made news recently by bucking the spending trend - postponing a $17 million production of Stephen King's grisly novel ''Firestarter'' because its costs were growing too fast. Still, this Christmas the studio will distribute ''The Dark Crystal,'' a $26 million fantasy with no human characters. And it will soon start shooting David Lynch's $30 million version of the science-fiction novel ''Dune.'' Meanwhile, look for the $20 million-plus ''Best Friends'' and ''Once Upon a Time in America'' from Warner Bros., not to mention the $35 million ''Superman III.'' Also affiliated with Warner and headed for price tags of $20 million or more are ''The Right Stuff,'' based on Tom Wolfe's book about astronauts, and a movie called ''Greystone.''
Even the Walt Disney studio isn't immune, with $20 million reportedly flowing into its ''Black Cauldron'' cartoon, not due for some years yet. And to cap it off, Variety lists several more top-money projects galloping toward the cameras, mostly under independent auspices. ''Amadeus,'' based on the Broadway hit, could cost $25 million. Three projects at Paramount are headed for the $20 million mark, and it's ditto for Polygram's adaptation of ''A Chorus Line.'' Some other independent projects are expected to hit $30 million, from ''Catherine the Great'' to ''Princess Bride'' and ''Legend of Darkness.''
If the usual Hollywood patterns hold, the big-budget wave will continue until a spectacular failure or two. Or until some small-budget sleeper reminds the moguls that tiny projects like ''Easy Rider'' and the original ''Rocky'' sometimes make more profits than their colossal cousins. For the nonce, though, the studios hope to spend their way to success. The box office will spell out the results, reflecting not just the business acumen of the dream-factory bosses , but ultimately their showmanship as well.