World Film Gears for Change

US movies will dominate; sequels fade, theaters will spruce up, tech up

MOVIE insiders don't expect 1991 to be a big year for change. But get ready for major changes in 1992 - and for the growing preparations these will bring during the next 12 months. On the international film scene, Europe is the place being watched most closely. ``Europe is in a calm before the storm,'' says Richard Pena, director of programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and an expert on world cinema. ``Europeans are waiting to see what the effects will be of political and economic changes from the 1992 unification.''

Europe's film industries are already somewhat internationalized because coproductions - joint ventures by studios in different countries - have become increasingly popular. But uncertainties still abound for the post-1992 period, including the question of whether new trade agreements will provide a firmer base for European filmmaking.

If this does happen, it could reverse an alarming trend whereby European films have drastically lowered their presence in European theaters, losing much of their ``market share'' to ever-popular American productions. In the movie theaters of Germany, according to Mr. Pena, only about 5.8 percent of tickets sold are for German films - a situation that has both cultural and economic consequences, since a small audience for German-made cinema leads inevitably to decreased German production. The situation has been worsening in Spain, too, where Pena says about 30 films are currently produced each year - compared with about 140 during the mid-'70s.

Things are less bleak in France and some other countries. But all Europe is eager for answers to 1992's big imponderables, Pena says. Will the market become more open and free for European films? Will new quotas limit the predominance of American films? Would this lead to more European production, and therefore more jobs and other benefits? In all these areas, says Pena, ``something is probably going to change - but nobody knows what or how.''

In the United States, the major Hollywood studios tightened their hold on the film industry during the late '80s, as many independent distribution companies downscaled or closed their doors - reducing the number of outlets for foreign films and independently produced American movies. Independent filmmaking continues in the US, however, and in 1991 the ``majors'' are likely to intensify their search for ``indie'' pictures they can acquire cheaply and turn (they hope) into hits. More studios and distributors may open ``classics'' or ``boutique'' divisions devoted to offbeat and somewhat specialized fare, and if audiences respond, the trend could continue to grow.

Such a trend is needed if serious independent filmmaking is to regain the presence it had in the US as recently as 15 years ago. Pena cites two documentaries by filmmaker Barbara Kopple as an example of how things have changed in this area. ``Harlan County, USA,'' about a strike by Kentucky coal miners, was acquired by the ``aggressive and independent'' distributor Cinema 5 in 1976, and played widely in desirable theaters.

By contrast, Ms. Kopple's new ``American Dream,'' about a Minnesota meat-packers strike, is still looking for a distributor months after its critically applauded showing at the New York Film Festival last autumn. ``The old network of independent theaters has largely closed down,'' Pena notes, accounting for one major obstacle in the film's path. ``Structurally, there's no place for an `American Dream' right now.''

It is possible that increased ``multiplex'' theater-building in 1991 will help with such problems. ``When there are more multiplexes,'' says Larry Kardish, curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art here, ``more product is needed, and exhibitors become more adventurous.'' More multiplex screens could mean a larger quantity of foreign-language and independent pictures

Moviegoers can also expect a blossoming of African-American film, Mr. Kardish says, since several black directors (some of them women) are preparing new productions for release in coming months. This will mark a triumph for such filmmakers as Spike Lee and Charles Burnett, whose breakthrough to mainstream theaters paved the way.

What moviegoers may not be seeing as the '90s unfold is a large number of films with Roman numerals in their titles. ``Sequels will be kissed goodbye,'' says Lawrence Cohn, who watches the movie scene for Variety, the entertainment trade paper. ``The public is getting very tired of them, and the studios are starting to see that. There will still be plenty in 1991, because of Hollywood's usual time lag, but the number will be going down.

In movies that do make it to the screen, hit films of 1990 are likely to set the pattern for stories, characters, and styles. ``There will be lots of `Pretty Woman' imitations,'' predicts Ralph Donnelly, a New York theater owner.

Other pictures that struck it richer than expected in 1990 include ``Ghost'' and ``Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,'' as well as ``Home Alone,'' the surprise smash of the winter-holiday season. Looking at the recent record, Mr. Cohn anticipates ``more freshness and pseudo-freshness'' from Hollywood in 1991, as well as more ``period'' films to provide diversity.

As for American independent production, Cohn expects the pattern-setters for 1991 to be ``Metropolitan,'' which scored very well with art-theater patrons, and ``To Sleep With Anger,'' which found a smaller audience but impressed the industry by making the most of a low budget and aiming at the neglected African-American market.

But the biggest trend in non-Hollywood activity, Cohn says, is a growing movement toward larger-scale productions. ``Internationally, the demand is for bigger films,'' he explains, ``from the scale of `Mr. & Mrs. Bridge' on up. That movie cost around $8 or $9 million, which is the minimum to satisfy today's demand. It also had two big stars and a respected director and producer.''

Some of the movie world's most proudly independent figures are moving in the direction of more ambitious projects, Cohn notes: German director Wim Wenders is making a $20 million science-fiction epic in several different countries, and American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch is directing star Winona Ryder in his current production.

Whether these movies turn out to be hits or misses, we can also expect a more lavish experience when we're watching them in our neighborhood theaters. Citing a trend toward ``more technical activity,'' Cohn predicts that more care will be taken with sound systems - digital sound is about to make a major splash - and amenities like the ``business-class seating'' that Mr. Donnelly is introducing in one of his theaters. In all, says Cohn, ``There's going to be more emphasis on presentation'' as the '90s move ahead.

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