A Whirlwind Movie Season For Summer

Looking dumber than dumb in rainbow-colored goggles and striped shorts, actor Michael Keaton strides onto a set of "Multiplicity." The comedy about a man who clones himself - due in theaters July 12 - is complete and has been screened before unusually enthusiastic preview audiences. But studio heads, after staring at the most jam-packed summer schedule in history, felt that an extra-zany epilogue might offer box-office insurance. So cast and crew are back for three more days of shooting.

"There are no weekends this summer when the rest of of us are not up against some major special-effects thriller," says director Harold Ramis. Noting that he chose his movie for laughs but also some "emotional-philosophical resonance," Ramis says: "We've got to hit home that our movie is something human, funny, different - or we'll never make it."

Though the words have long echoed from all corners of Hollywood, they are more pronounced this year as actors, directors, and critics alike dub the 1996 Memorial-Day-to-Labor-Day movie schedule "the summer of special effects."

Those moviegoers who have so far avoided getting sucked into the marketing vortex of "Twister" are still in danger of being slimed by chemical weapons in "The Rock" (June 7), zapped by alien forces in "Independence Day" (July 3), and clobbered by mega-bad guys in "Eraser" (June 21). Can the computerized hoopla and digital hype be avoided? "Mission Impossible."

Like Keaton, who undergoes a bit of digital reincarnation himself, moviegoers may have to clone themselves to catch even a fraction of this summer's offerings.

"This is the most crowded movie season ever," says Martin Grove, cinema columnist for the Hollywood Reporter. Fifty major-studio films and 55 independent productions - eight more than last summer's record season - are expected to bring in 40 percent of moviemakers' yearly income in 14 weeks.

"The good news for moviegoers is there's lots of product. The bad news for moviemakers is they can only expect survival of the fittest," Grove says.

Such survival increasingly means media blitzes that inundate consumers of newspapers, radio, and tv well beyond paid-for advertising space. Time and Entertainment Weekly magazines - both owned by Time Warner (the parent company of Warner Bros., which produced "Twister"), have carried cover stories related to the film. A host of videos on real-life tornadoes is being released by such names as National Geographic, and major tv networks have followed with feature stories of their own on Midwestern storm systems.

"It's a good thing to be aware that the attention of the whole culture gets blown around like straw in saturation like this," says Brian Stonehill, a professor of media literacy at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. "It takes more and more effort to find shelter from these winds of corporately amplified promotion."

But such are the new economics of Hollywood, say insiders, where more films are dying before audiences know about them.

"Either a film makes it [by] two to three days, or it is likely to disappear," says Paul Dergarabedian, analyst at Exhibitor Relations, a top Hollywood ratings-tracking firm. "In a marketplace this tight, there are only so many slices of the pie to go around."

These factors together are the reason Hollywood is pulling out all the stops. With ticket sales increasing only about 1 to 2 percent a year (to $5.2 billion last year), domestic profit margins are dwindling by about 14 to 15 percent, according to Chris Lanier, an industry analyst. The average film now costs about $55 million to shoot and market.

"I liken it to a big-time poker game with about five or six major players," says Douglas Gomery, who teaches the economics of cinema at the University of Maryland in College Park. "The stakes are high, and the payoff is about 1 in 10, but the pot is too big to ignore."

Though many critics lament the burgeoning trend to special effects, in which explosions and other daring visuals take precedence over writing, character, and plot, analysts explain several reasons why the tendency is likely to continue.

First, is the art of the possible. With computers now able to produce lifelike dinosaurs and believable cows-in-the-wind, industry imagineers are wont to break out of creative straitjackets to push the envelope on every kind of fantasy. Second is cost. Creating and destroying digitized sets is far cheaper than doing it in real life. A third is related to cost: the need to recoup the enormous cost of movies through overseas ticket sales.

"Visual histrionics translate more easily into a hundred languages than do the subleties of plot, character, and witty language," says a screenwriter here.

On the positive side - and mimicking the summer season of 1994, in which "Forrest Gump" and "The Lion King" helped draw more moviegoers to other films as well - this season is off to a promising start with the phenomenal success of "Twister." After just 10 days, the story of tornado chasers has landed in the smash-success category, with $96 million in ticket sales.

"A few tent-pole movies like 'Twister' can stir attention for all the rest," says Jim Ericson, a cinema analyst at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan.

But megahits can also elbow aside others. Second-place finisher to "Twister's" staggering opening-weekend take of $37.8 million was "The Truth About Cats and Dogs," at a relatively paltry $3.9 million.

As the formal season begins to roll out next week, industry-watchers will be waiting to find the patterns of success and failure. Besides special-effects thrillers, analysts see these subthemes for 1996:

*Science fiction/mythology/horror. "Dragonheart" (May 31) stars the voice of Sean Connery as a 10th-century dragon; "Kazaam" (July 17) boasts basketball giant Shaquille O'Neal as a genie; and "Phenomenon" (July 3) depicts John Travolta as a genius.

*Family fare: "Flipper" (May 17) stars the dolphin of tv fame with former crocodile wrestler Paul Hogan; Children can look forward to "The Adventures of Pinocchio" (July 26) with Martin Landau, or Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (June 21).

*Buddy action. Morgan Freeman and Keanu Reeves in the high-tech thriller, "Chain Reaction" (Aug. 2); Laurence Fishburne and Stephen Baldwin on the run in "Fled" (Aug. 9). Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon try to swindle a mob in "Bound" (Aug. 9).

"The smart money is on Hollywood having a really great summer," says analyst Grove. "While some themes dominate, the sheer volume dictates there is something for everyone. People just need to make sure they see the one they like before it's gone."

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