Studios Chase Record Revenues

Industry keeps an eye on box-office tallies in summer, when companies earn 40 percent of annual income

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Call it the Hollywood 500. With four weeks to go in the race to be Hollywood's box-office money winner this summer, ''Batman Forever'' is in the lead with the lissome ''Pocahontas'' close on its heels. Orbiting in third place is ''Apollo 13.''

But sloshing into the race over the weekend was Kevin Costner's porous ''Waterworld,'' held afloat by Hollywood's biggest budget ever, around $200 million. Greeted with generally weak reviews, the film is not expected to be the ''Speed'' of last summer (which earned $300 million worldwide), and might, according to many critics, sink a little like the Titanic.

Over the weekend audiences paid nearly $22 million to bathe in ''Waterworld,'' hardly competitive with ''Batman Forever,'' which earned $57 million the first weekend, the highest ever for any film.

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And now into its sixth week in theaters, with Val Kilmer driving the Batmobile, the film has earned more than $170 million in the United States. Add another early $11 million in London, and the film will easily break the $200-million mark worldwide, the kind of blockbuster success Hollywood loves to love, and to repeat.

''Batman is terrific,'' says Lee Isgur, an entertainment analyst for Jeffries and Company in San Francisco, ''but it doesn't have the newness or creativity that '2001' or 'Star Wars' had for their time. It's just another good film.''

Disney's family movie, ''Pocahontas'' jumped over the $115-million mark after six weeks, and ''Apollo 13,'' with Tom Hanks in a role somewhat like Forest Gump's older brother as an astronaut, has earned more than $100 million in just four weeks.

Films such as ''Casper,'' ''Die Hard With a Vengeance,'' and ''Crimson Tide'' have each earned close to $90 million, but have been in theaters for 9, 10, and 11 weeks respectively, and are showing now in fewer theaters.

According to industry figures, box-office receipts are up 13 percent over last summer when eight films had earnings of over $100 million.

Analysts say it could be a record summer as at least 10 films are close to or have the potential to top $100 million. But if there is another ''Jurassic Park'' hiding in the midst, a film that earned $330 million in North America, critics would be surprised.

''It's part of the nature of Hollywood to go after the blockbuster,'' says Kenneth Turan, movie critic of the Los Angeles Times. ''As long as Hollywood is with us, I don't think the desire will fade. If a string of blockbusters don't do well, the studios try to have a little higher standard in selecting the ones to finance, but they never go cold turkey and drop them.''

One of the bombs of the summer so far is ''Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,'' based on the action-television series for children. In four weeks, the film has earned a disappointing $35 million.

''My guess is that the fad has played out,'' says Carrie Rickey, movie critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. ''It's aimed at really young kids. They probably want to watch it on TV because they have much shorter attention spans.''

Sylvester Stallone's ''Judge Dredd,'' an action film made for a reported $80 million, has earned a little over $30 million in four weeks. But worldwide release, video sales and rentals could easily triple the figure over the long haul despite the initial reception.

Because studios do 40 percent of their business in the summer months, movies are marketed as breathtaking events with a relatively small window of opportunity to attract audiences.

''What is happening now,'' says Mr. Isgur,'' is that the number of theaters is increasing, but the screens are getting smaller and smaller. Instead of opening the film at 300 screens around the country, now the films open everywhere because of the competition of pay-per-view, HBO, and rentals.''

Theater owners split the box-office receipts with studios on a sliding scale. On opening weekends theaters get 10 percent, then they take up to 50 percent if the movie enjoys a long run.

''When movies are financed,'' says Ms. Rickey, ''you need a bankable star, and a bankable star is one that bankers have heard of. Even though two of the biggest-earning films of all time, 'E.T.' [almost $400 million] and 'Four Weddings and Funeral,' didn't have stars, it's a lesson that Hollywood hasn't really learned. They think the more you spend, the more you earn.''

While the $200-million ''Waterworld'' was in production in Hawaii, the film was nearly scuttled by bad weather, which added to the already enormous costs. After disagreeing with star Kevin Costner over the film's editing, the director, Kevin Reynolds, walked away from the film.

''Nobody really wants to spend that much money on a film,'' Turan says, ''not because they are saintly people, but because it diminishes the chance of earning a profit.''

What makes ''Apollo 13'' so appealing, Rickey says, is the script's focus on the moral drama and not excessive attention to the technology of simulating life in space.

''The really exciting sequences were about 25 men trying to get a square peg into a round hole to bring three men home alive,'' she says. ''I think the moral of the movie is that Jim Lovell wants to go to the moon so much, but the most important voyage is just getting home.''

Two new films that critics predict will do well at the box office are ''Kids,'' a gritty, explicit, low-budget film about teens, and ''Babe,'' an Australian film based on a children's book.

''Kids'' broke house records at 29 small theaters around the country over the weekend. The distributor of the film, Excalibur Pictures, says it will expand the number of theaters showing the film to 75 for the coming weekend.

''Babe'' is an allegory told from a pig's viewpoint, a talking pig who acts like a sheepdog. ''It's very charming,'' Turan says.

''Babe is fantastic,'' says Rickety. ''The special effects aren't just used for novelty, but actually get you further into the character.'' Other critics have called the film ''vibrant,'' with ''breathtaking technological innovation.''

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