Hollywood Wish: To Rewrite the Ending On Holiday Earnings Movies' 3-Hanky Season

DON'T roll the credits yet, but the Christmas movie season is just about over and Hollywood may need a hanky for a good cry. Those hopes for blockbuster hits have nearly all fizzled big time at the box office.

Stung by last year's relatively weak Christmas showing, with the notable exception of ``Mrs. Doubtfire,'' more producers released Christmas big-budget films in mid-November this year.

``Big films like `Interview With the Vampire' might have waited until December to be released like a few years ago,'' says Peter Garbenya, film critic of the Columbus Dispatch in Columbus, Ohio. ``But distributors want the Thanksgiving crowds, and all of December,'' he says.

Success remains a guessing game in Hollywood: Do big stars, big budgets, and brilliant scripts add up to big profits? Or do low-budget, sleeper films like ``The Crying Game,'' or ``Four Weddings and a Funeral'' increase the odds against box-office success?

Put megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger with Danny DeVito and Emma Thompson in a comedy called ``Junior,'' and watch the crowds come. Wrong. The much-publicized comedy about a man who becomes pregnant flopped at the box office, earning a weak $24.7 million in four weeks.

What went wrong? ``Pregnant men aren't cool,'' says entertainment analyst Paul Marsh from NatWest Securities in New York, ``particularly if the man is someone who played Terminator.''

As movies compete with each other, videos, TV, and computer games, the all important word-of-mouth among moviegoers is the key to success and failure. ``As much as people like Schwarzenegger and talk about him,'' Mr. Garbenya says, ``they only like him in certain things, and if they have other films to choose, like `Lion King' or `Star Trek Generations,' they won't take a chance on `Junior.' ''

Search for megahits

For Ken Turan, film critic of the Los Angeles Times, the nature of Hollywood is to chase blockbuster films. ``Most of the people who make the key decisions about films have gamblers' mentalities and like to shove all the chips into the middle of the table,'' he says. ``They don't want to make films that make a few million dollars profit.'' Often the home-video market brings more money following a big-screen flop.

``What is unique this year is that there is such a weak lineup of films,'' says ``Sneak Previews'' film critic Michael Medved. ``Normally you assume films from the Christmas season will dominate the Oscars, but this year there isn't much.''

Another film that has not done well is the remake of ``Miracle on 34th Street'' starring Richard Attenborough. After four weeks in theaters the movie's take was a little more than $13 million. ``The original version is so strong, and is a classic,'' Mr. Marsh says. ``The remake would have to be great to compete against the original. What if someone did `It's a Wonderful Life' again? It would be impossible to compete against a film that defines a classic.''

In the last week before Christmas, films such as Paul Newman's ``Nobody's Fool,'' and Jody Foster in ``Nell'' have a limited release to qualify for the 1994 Academy Awards. Lighter fare like ``Richie Rich'' and ``Dumb and Dumber'' won't win Oscars, but could have mass appeal.

Oscar merit or not, the industry holds its breath over box-office reports. One of the two big hits of the season is the Disney comedy, ``The Santa Clause,'' starring TV's Tim Allen as a Santa stand-in. After six weeks in theaters, the movie had raked in $105 million.

The other big hit, earning $97 million in six weeks, is ``Interview With the Vampire,'' a Warner Bros. film with bite starring Tom Cruise with fangs.

Critics also say the controversial ``Disclosure,'' starring Michael Douglas as a man who is sexually harassed, may be a hit. In seven days moviegoers spent $13.6 million to see it.

``There are two films people can go to with confidence,'' Garbenya says. ```Santa Clause' delivers comedy, and `Disclosure' promises sleaze and delivers it.''

Despite a less-than-stellar season so far, 1994 has been a record year for Hollywood. Ten films had receipts of more than $100 million each. ``In terms of profitability, I don't know,'' Marsh says. ``Production costs continue to spiral up, and markets we thought would develop faster have not, like pay-per-view on demand.''

Film critics say that Hollywood's record success this year has been disproportionately carried by two films, ``The Lion King,'' and Paramount's ``Forrest Gump.'' Each has earned nearly $300 million. ``I don't know many people inside the business who think this has been a great year overall,'' Mr. Turan says, ``because two films carried so much.''

``Paramount could have every one of its other releases flop,'' Mr. Medved says, ``and still have a profitable year with `Forrest Gump.' This is not good for the industry. Everybody is looking for the next monster hit, the next `Forrest Gump,' and they are not looking for that solid movie that makes $50 million.''

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