Hollywood Loses Some Glitter

Summer films fare poorly, but some analysts blame bad decisions, not 'inevitable' decline

WILL tinseltown continue in free-fall or bounce back like the stuntman who revives after the camera stops rolling?This is the question being asked industrywide here following the release of summer box-office figures that show profits of major Hollywood studios are down for the third time in three years. Total box-office revenue is down over the same period. But despite several dire reports here of an irreversible change in the financial health of America's dream factory - some calling the situation the worst in two decades - there is more than one way to read the tea leaves from Hollywood's disappointing summer of '91. "If it's not the worst in 20 years, the numbers haven't looked this bad in at least 10," says Harold Vogel, a Merrill Lynch entertainment analyst. "We are riding out a summer in which Hollywood made several bad decisions in the wake of two record seasons," counters Martin Grove, movie analyst for the Hollywood Reporter. "The industry is very healthy." The figures that are causing a stir were released by Wertheim Schroder & Co., showing combined profits from major Hollywood studios down from $1.2 billion in 1989 to $1 billion last year. This year, nose dives by such big-budget pictures as "Hudson Hawk" and "V. I. Warshawski" have led to a projected decline to $800 million. Poor showings by others such as "Life Stinks,Dutch," and "Mobsters" have added to industry-wide jitters already fueled by reports of imminent bankruptcies at MGM-Pathe Communications Company and Orion Pictures Corporation. Compounding problems from a decade that saw production costs triple, box-office takes through Aug. 20 dropped from $3.26 billion in 1989 to $3.20 billion in 1990 and $3.11 billion this year, according to the industry journal, Variety. Stock prices of major entertainment companies are off an average of 22 percent over last year. All of the above have led to several major moves to cut film costs - 30 to 40 percent at Disney; $25 million in overhead at Sony Pictures Entertainment. The downturn also affects all the sub-industries that support entertainment: costuming, transportation, catering, distributors, theaters. "This is not a minor, downward bump," Mr. Vogel says. Add a country in recession with a lower interest in film-going to a Hollywood misjudging with expensive flops, "and you have a long transition phase, 18 months at least," he says. But other observers say several factors mitigate recent Hollywood problems: * Two companies teetering near bankruptcy - Orion and MGM - have skewed overall industry figures. Four studios had summer revenues above $200 million (Warner Brothers, Buena Vista, Tri-Star, Columbia). Three topped $175 million: (Universal, Paramount, 20th Century Fox.) "These huge successes were spread around from independents to major studios, which is a sign of health," Mr. Grove says. * Domestic box-office figures typically represent only 20 percent of a film's total income. Through international release, video, and television, companies recoup costs over several years. * Though lending freezes have been announced by some top credit agencies - allegedly threatening several studios - an infusion of capital worldwide has actually caused part of Hollywood's problem. By chasing a limited talent-pool, investors have driven up production costs. Films get made that shouldn't get made, leading to more flops. * Some published figures pointing to film-company woes actually reflect nonfilm problems at parent companies - such as Universal and Disney, whose theme parks have suffered heavily in the recession. There is also a spate of well-publicized films with high-profile stars in the Hollywood hopper for the Christmas season, including an updated Peter Pan called "Hook," starring Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams.

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