If statistics were all that mattered, Hollywood would have celebrated the passing of 1994 by breaking open the bubbly: Total box office revenues rose 4 percent to a record $5.25 billion; the number of tickets sold climbed to 1.21 billion, up 3 percent; and 10 movies claimed more than $100 million each — the best showing since 1990. Two — The Lion King and Forrest Gump — even went on to cross the $300 million mark in a neck-and-neck race to become the fourth and fifth highest-grossing movies of all time.
But with last year’s final figures in, the New Year is dawning cold and sober, and Hollywood executives are acting more like the battered survivors of the Poseidon than a group of merry revelers. The handful of ballyhooed $100 million movies that grabbed the limelight did so at the expense of dozens of other films that proved to be instant losers. Mid-range movies that in years past might have registered as respectable runners-up in the $60 million range were relatively sparse in ‘94. ”It’s not a good business to be in,” laments Paramount Pictures distribution chief Wayne Lewellen. ”Two out of 10 pictures are hits. The other eight lose money.”
”It’s a major concern going into the future,” admits Twentieth Century Fox senior executive vice president Tom Sherak. ”You get open or you’re dead. There’s no middle ground. It’s easier to do $100 million than $50 million. You knew The Santa Clause would do $100 million the day it opened. With Nell, we’ll have to fight to get to $50 million, and we won’t even get there.”
The power players have only themselves to blame for such Darwinian competition. With challenges to the major studios coming from such smaller, aggressive companies as New Line (which broke into the winner’s circle with The Mask and then went on an adrenaline-fueled, Turner-inspired spending spree) and the ever-competitive Miramax Films (which scored its biggest hit ever with the critical and commercial coup Pulp Fiction), more and more movies were simply shoved into the marketplace. Tracking the grosses of the approximately 430 films released in 1994, Variety statistician Leonard Klady concludes, ”There was a huge glut. In a most vicious way, it’s survival of the fittest.”
Riding the tail of the wildly successful Lion King, their biggest animated movie yet, the Disney studios persevered through a year of well-documented executive turmoil to become the first distributor ever to sell more than $1 billion worth of tickets in a single year. Commanding 19.3 percent of the total market, Disney handily beat out its perennial archrival Warner Bros., which ranked No. 1 for the past three years but sealed its own second-place fate after watching its biggest attempt at a summer blockbuster, Kevin Costner’s $70 million Wyatt Earp, succumb to a wrenching death at the O.K. Corral. Warner saved some face when its Western Maverick squeezed past the $100 million mark (though its competitors accused the studio of massaging the numbers, Warner, in best Bret Maverick fashion, roundly denied it); and Neil Jordan’s Interview With the Vampire later went on to strike a vein as well.
Pity, though, hapless Sony Pictures. All the other major studios had at least one, if not two, $100 million bonanzas to boast of: Paramount celebrated Gump and Clear and Present Danger; Fox trumpeted Speed and True Lies; Universal boasted The Flintstones. But neither of Sony’s two units — Columbia and TriStar — managed to hoist any of their titles over the $100 million hurdle. Between them, they produced only one mid-range grosser, Jack Nicholson’s urban horror-comedy Wolf, whose eventual $65 million take paled next to its estimated $70 million cost. Lacking a genuine winner, Sony’s total grosses dropped by a chilling 45 percent from the previous year.
But for all the studios, the worst news of 1994 may have been this: Not even a megamovie makes a company rich — especially if there are powerful profit participants involved. According to some industry insiders, Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis have already collected more than $60 million out of Paramount’s Forrest Gump returns.