Movie Industry Flies High On Summer '93 Successes

The report of Hollywood's death is exaggerated, as studios celebrate record-breaking box-office receipts and gear up for increased production

LIKE dinosaurs in ``Jurassic Park,'' Hollywood seems to have reversed its crawl toward extinction, thanks to the blockbuster summer of 1993.

Just two years ago, many pundits warned that the two-decade drop-off in cinema box-office receipts signaled an irreversible financial decline for America's dream factory. Rumors of bankruptcy abounded (at MGM-Pathe Communications and Orion Pictures), dramatic cost-cutting at Disney and Sony Pictures was announced, and lending freezes by credit agencies cast a chill over the industry.

But the top ten films of summer '93 grossed more than a record $1 billion, up $250 million over last year. Domestic box-office sales so far this year are a record $3.7 billion - up 13 percent from 1992. All figures point to the highest one-year total in history at well over $4 billion.

``Five to ten years ago everyone was saying cable, video, and pay-per-view would kill Hollywood,'' says Douglas Gomery, a specialist in the economics of cinema at the University of Maryland at College Park. ``Now more people are going to movies than anytime in history. The new options have not cut the basic desire to go to the theater.''

What happened?

Mr. Gomery attributes part of Hollywood's success this summer to an infusion of foreign capital from studio takeovers in recent years. The Japanese firm Matsushita took over MCA/Universal last year, helping to underwrite ``Jurassic Park,'' and Sony Entertainment purchased Paramount the year before.

The recently announced merger of Paramount and Viacom, if it goes through, would turn that conglomerate into the second-largest media company on earth, with promise of more secure funding for cinema projects there.

But many caution against drawing too broad a conclusion.

``The movie industry is product-driven and runs in cycles,'' says John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations Company, the leading industry monitor of box office. ``The studios made good pictures this year, and the public found them.''

``The studios just did it right this year,'' says Martin Grove, movie analyst for the Hollywood Reporter. ``Things that no one can predict or successfully plan came together to help them.''

Among the unpredictable convergences this year:

* More movies were released (roughly 56), beginning early in May with ``Dave,'' and ``Much Ado About Nothing'' and continuing strongly through the best Labor Day weekend in history, including ``Kalifornia,'' and ``Boxing Helena.''

* The steady, staggered release of such action films as ``The Firm,'' ``In the Line of Fire,'' ``Rising Sun,'' and ``The Fugitive'' helped avoid a split in sales. The mega-hit ``Jurassic Park'' - already the second-highest grossing film in history ($647 million worldwide and counting) - also helped generate enthusiasm for films of all kinds.

* An unusually broad array of films were introduced from children's categories (``Free Willy,'' ``Dennis the Menace,'' ``Searching for Bobby Fischer,'' ``The Secret Garden'') to adult romance: (``Sleepless in Seattle,'' ``Made in America''). More films did modest to good business, from young-adult, action movies (``Cliffhanger,'' ``Rookie of the Year'') and teen drama (``What's Love Got To Do With It?'' ``Poetic Justice''), to comedy: (``Manhattan Murder Mystery,'' ``Robin Hood, Men in Tights'').

Other trends evident this year: More films with PG-13 ratings were a conscious attempt by studios to cash in on baby boomers who have told researchers that they want more movies to attend with their kids.

The same surveys show that generation, now aged 29 to 47, are seeking cinematic connections with their youth. So more TV-based fare was produced, such as ``The Fugitive,'' and more is coming: ``The Beverly Hillbillies'' is scheduled for release in October, ``Addams Family Values'' in November, and ``Wayne's World 2'' in December.

On average, films were better made than recent summer seasons or offered interesting new twists, according to critics.

```Sleepless in Seattle' was a big romance picture with two principals who don't even meet until the end ... and then with a handshake,'' says Jim Erickson, a movie critic who teaches film at Wichita State University. ``That's as far a removal of sex from love as Hollywood has ever done.''

Overlooking such highly touted flops as ``Last Action Hero,'' ``Hocus Pocus,'' and ``Coneheads,'' critics also point out that more effort was made to cast major stars in roles better suited to them.

Those include Clint Eastwood as serious toughie in ``In Line of Fire'' instead of comedic wiseacre in the recent failure, ``Pink Cadillac''; Tom Cruise in a contemporary drama ``The Firm,'' instead of a period piece with Irish accent as in the recent flop, ``Far and Away''; Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in an intelligent comedy, ``Sleepless in Seattle,'' rather than a shallow one, ``Joe vs. the Volcano''; Harrison Ford in a large-scale action drama ``The Fugitive,'' rather than the cerebral lawyer in ``Regarding Henry.''

How will the success of '93 translate to future fare?

Expect more movies of all kinds, says box-office analyst A.D. Murphy. Several major studios have already announced significant increases in their annual feature output, Murphy says, in many cases as high as 50 to 100 percent.

Expect more television-based thrillers, more children's classics, and more attempts to put modern twists on classic themes like romantic tales, analysts say.

``You can be sure we are going to be barraged with large lizards and other big beasts that chase humans,'' Mr. Erikson says, pointing to the phenomenal success of ``Jurassic Park.''

But whatever Hollywood does to clone the success of 1993, the real effects will not be seen until 1995. There is roughly a two-year lead time for most movies from conception to cannister. That includes time for development such as screenplay writing, rewriting, and polishing. Next comes preproduction, such as set building, location scouting, and final contract negotiating. Months of filming are followed by post-production tasks of film and sound editing, special-effects mixing, distribution, advertising.

As always, there is no way to gauge what magic combination of casting, story, or visual effects will go into a film - or what audience tastes will be when a film is completed. Oddly enough, the recent group of successes were in planning stages directly after the disaster summer of 1990.

``It's just as easy to read the tea leaves today and say, with all the successes, there's a bunch of bombs to come,'' says Harold Vogel, a movie analyst for Merrill Lynch.

Besides the vagaries of audience tastes and appetites, there are shifting economic winds that affect what movies are made and who sees them.

There are the pressures of worldwide recession, which can help sales - if moviegoers cancel other more expensive entertainments - or hinder, if audiences choose to forego first-run movies for video.

And in recent years, an infusion of worldwide capital has driven up the asking price of stars, further inflating production costs.

Though studios guard their profit statistics like Fort Knox, the anecdotal evidence is strong that costs are rising faster than profits in many cases. Jack Nicholson reportedly skimmed $50 million off the top of profits for the first Batman movie, which has surpassed $260 million in worldwide ticket sales.

``A hit like `Rain Main' ended up making nothing for the studio after stars like [Tom] Cruise, [Dustin] Hoffman, and everyone else got their share,'' notes Exhibitor Relations's Mr. Krier. As a result, Krier and others say, major studios and producers are under pressure to slow the free-spending of the 1980s and keep their overhead down.

Driven by foreign markets for both video and film, demand for Hollywood products continues to rise. Industry reports say there is an aggressive construction binge to modernize studio facilities, some of which predate World War II, as Hollywood continues moving into the digital age. The trade paper Variety estimates current spending by studios at $1 billion on new projects, the largest construction boom since sound came to films.

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