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The box office is booming, but who's making tomorrow's movies?

By David Sterritt / January 13, 1983

New York

Mixed news from the movie front. On the cheerful side, 1983 got off to a rousing start at the box office. Grosses went up for every recent film in release - in some cases way up. The trade newspaper Variety calculates that a whopping 13 pictures pulled in more than $1 million over the New Year's Day extended weekend. Similarly, the New York Times reports that moviegoers spent some $300 million for tickets during the month-long Christmas season that ended last Sunday.

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''Tootsie'' was the champ. More than doubling the take of any other movie, it joined ''Gandhi'' and ''The Toy'' to earn Columbia Pictures an all-time ''personal best'' in weekly revenue. ''The Dark Crystal'' broke the $5 million barrier at New Year's, along with ''Tootsie'' and ''The Toy,'' according to Variety, while ''Best Friends'' and ''The Verdict'' trailed close behind. Also riding high are ''48 Hrs.'' and the unstoppable ''E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.''

In economic terms, it's nice to see Hollywood selling so many tickets after a disappointing fall slump. And in cultural terms, it's encouraging to note the relatively high quality that marks many of the New Year hits. ''The Verdict,'' an intelligent and superbly crafted drama, is running second only to ''Tootsie'' on a per-screen basis. ''Tootsie'' itself has more depth than most recent comedies, as does ''Best Friends'' with its sharp dialogue and neat construction. Then there's the visual inventiveness of ''The Dark Crystal'' and the timeless appeal of the reissued ''Peter Pan,'' both aimed at family audiences and doing just fine.

This is not to overlook the inept silliness of ''The Toy'' or the fiercely antisocial violence of ''48 Hrs.,'' another current favorite. But the overall intelligence level is comparatively high at the moment, and it's good to see audiences respond enthusiastically.

Behind the scenes, a less positive note is being struck. Despite good news from the box office, Hollywood production has sunk to its lowest level in 15 years, generating waves of unemployment and highlighting a trend toward overseas rather than domestic activity by the major studios.

Hollywood's labor situation in late 1982 was called a ''wasteland'' by union officials, says Variety, with worldwide production down more than 10 percent from the year before. The situation is no better now, with only a half-dozen union-based movies currently shooting in Los Angeles.

In sum, fewer movies are being made, and those that do go before the cameras are more likely to be shot outside the United States. Last year, writes Variety's industry analyst Todd McCarthy, major-studio filmmaking within the US declined more steeply than at any time since 1970. Yet foreign production by the same companies zoomed. While overall production by the ''majors'' went down 16 percent last year, American production fell off 38 percent (the largest change ever felt by Hollywood's labor pool) and overseas production soared by 75 percent. Leading the pack was MGM/UA, which reportedly based 11 films abroad in 1982, compared with only two in the US.

In most years, Mr. McCarthy calculates, the major studios produce about 20 films in foreign climes. The 1982 figure, 35, is the largest number in 10 years. Behind the trend, apparently, is the recession-induced appeal of low labor costs and more-favorable rates of exchange. What effect this may have on the quality of future movies - if the pool of skilled and experienced Hollywood labor now shrinks or simply becomes discouraged - remains to be seen. One producer's philosophy

Though he's a recent addition to the corps of Hollywood producers, Keith Barish has a credo: He believes quality has a place on the movie screen. And he's determined to prove it, using experience gained, not in filmmaking classes, but the business world.