Auntie Mame’s famous rallying cry — Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death! — could well have been minted to describe the stomach-churning box office ride that sent Hollywood hurtling through its strangest spring ever. The year began strongly, as Oscar contenders Jerry Maguire and The English Patient showed impressive staying power and Scream blossomed into that rarest of Hollywood creations, a genuine word-of-mouth sensation that could become a franchise. And the season produced two unqualified blockbusters. Jim Carrey’s return to goofy form in Liar Liar performed well even by Carrey’s high standards and has so far taken in $144 million, while the renovation of 1977’s Star Wars allowed it to pass E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial as the all-time top-grossing U.S. release by adding $138 million to a take that had already reached $323 million. As of April 27, according to Exhibitor Relations, overall ticket receipts this year had reached $1.92 billion, up 19 percent over the same period last year, thanks largely to Luke Skywalker and friends.
But every silver lining has a cloud, and this spring, it rained red ink. As the studios increasingly relied on big-star/big- action ”event movies,” the phrase began to look like nothing more than Hollywood-speak for films with insanely inflated budgets that produce insanely inflated expectations. The verdict on this strategy won’t be final until summer, when Hollywood road-tests a dozen of its new $100 million action machines, but the early news is chilling: Not one of this spring’s vaunted events is likely to make money. The Saint, The Devil’s Own, and the dueling follies of Dante’s Peak and Volcano — each of which cost more than $100 million to make and market — will all top out at domestic grosses of $45-70 million, only about half of which flows back to the studios in film rentals. In other words, don’t hold your breath for the sequels.
Each of the movies opened fairly well, but their poor staying power (a pattern that the still-untested Volcano is likely to follow) signaled what the trade paper Variety noted as an ominous change in a former Hollywood rule of thumb. Using the old movie-biz math, a film’s final take could be calculated at four or five times its opening gross; these days, a movie’s opening week may now represent a third of its final gross. That change has caught the industry badly off guard. A few years ago, for example, the $16.8 million opening of Clint Eastwood’s thriller Absolute Power would have sent its final take soaring above $70 million; instead, the film is scraping its way to $51 million.
”It’s a new phenomenon in our business. Pictures open up huge and they fall off faster than ever before,” says Fox Domestic Film Group chairman Tom Sherak. ”There are so many movies, we cannibalize ourselves. It’s a scary thing.” Indeed it is, especially when theater owners, who used to keep running a movie if it was still earning $1,500 per weekend, are tempted to yank it or stick it on a split bill if the take dips below $2,000 per weekend.