Autumn fallout leaves Hollywood shell-shocked
Those strangled sobs you heard coming out of Hollywood's executive suites last weekend were cries of relief: The blockbuster $37.8 million opening of Jim Carrey's Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls officially began the holiday moviegoing season and dropped the curtain on a staggeringly dismal fall. Autumn is always a dumping ground for films that don't meet the standards of summer and Christmas, but nobody expected the studios to lose so big. Between Labor Day and Ace, the majors released one big-budget disaster after another, bunching three of them (Jade, Strange Days, and The Scarlet Letter) on one ill-fated October Friday the 13th, of course and lost $400 million in production and marketing costs. There were casualties: After a series of belly flops, from Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde to Three Wishes, studio wannabe Savoy effectively got out of the movie business. And there were victors two, to be precise: New Line's dark and scary Seven and MGM's light and funny Get Shorty. So move John Travolta and Brad Pitt onto Hollywood's A list, and take a look at the films they left in the dust:
BIG BUDGETS, NO STARS What were the studios thinking? Despite fat budgets, Showgirls, Jade, and Strange Days had no star insurance at all. MGM/UA promoted its Showgirls gimmick lewd, nude girls to a decent opening, but Jade and Days had nothing to sell. David Caruso, Angela Bassett, Linda Fiorentino, and Ralph Fiennes may be talented, but they're still, at best, on their way to stardom.
BIG BUDGETS, WRONG STARS Audiences rejected Assassins' Sylvester Stallone in designer eyeglasses, maybe because he spent more time pecking at his PC than flexing his pecs. (Unfortunately, his costar, Antonio Banderas, wasn't the one wooing Julianne Moore.) And Demi Moore's corseted turn in The Scarlet Letter proved that even Hollywood's top-paid actress can't overcome a laughable rewrite.
COPYCAT THRILLERS We can blame Joe Eszterhas not only for writing the execrable Showgirls and Jade but for helping spawn the fall onslaught of R-rated thrillers. ''There were too many dark urban movies about people getting killed,'' says Twentieth Century Fox executive vice president Tom Sherak. Jade and Showgirls went up against six more suspense-fests: Strange Days, Copycat, Seven, Assassins, Never Talk to Strangers, and Fair Game. Moviegoers picked just one big winner from that pack: Seven. Its grisly violence put off some viewers, says New Line marketing president Chris Pula. ''But if a moviegoer says, 'I can't believe how disturbing it was,' it's just as intriguing as 'This is great.''' Good and bad word of mouth turned Seven into a must-see and may have whetted the public's appetite for more: The me-too killer thriller Copycat started slowly but has developed into a modest hit thanks to the winning combo of Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver.
MAKE 'EM LAUGH By the time the light-heartedly violent Hollywood spoof Get Shorty arrived, it was manna from heaven. ''Audiences were anxious to see something fun,'' says Fox marketing chief Bob Harper. ''There was an overdose of hard-edged reality in movies and the real world.'' Rookie filmmaker Edward Burns also rode the comedy bandwagon with The Brothers McMullen. And in a weak Labor Day marketplace, moviegoers took a long look at the drag queens of To Wong Foo.
FEMALE FLICKS Films with genuine women didn't do as well. A hip, cigarette-puffing Demi Moore helped turn the nostalgic teen-girl drama Now and Then into a minor hit. Nicole Kidman won great reviews but only modest box office with the satiric To Die For. Winona Ryder gave young-star wattage to How to Make an American Quilt but couldn't save a convoluted story. And poor reviews sank the grief-stricken Moonlight and Valentino.
UNUSUAL SUSPECTS Two word-of-mouth surprises broke away from the pack this fall. Gramercy's The Usual Suspects slaked the Crying Game audience's thirst for a sophisticated drama with a great plot twist. ''Two things make a film successful,'' says Suspects director Bryan Singer. ''Saturation and a hipness factor people catch on to. Pulp Fiction became hip. So did Usual Suspects.''
Disney launched Powder in a media hailstorm over the news that director Victor Salva was a convicted child molester. But it successfully used TV ads to sell Powder's sci-fi premise to young men and its tale of an outsider trying to fit into society to young women. Says Disney marketing chief Terry Press, ''There was nothing else for that audience to go see.'' This fall, most filmgoers felt just as left out.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
Dead Presidents and How to Make an American Quilt ($25 million), To Die For ($22 million), Vampire in Brooklyn and Home for the Holidays ($20 million), The Big Green ($18 million), The Prophecy ($16 million), Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers ($15.2 million)
The Usual Suspects ($23 million), ITALIC "Brothers McMullen"] ($10.5 million), Persuasion ($4 million), Jeffrey ($3.3 million), Unzipped ($2.8 million)
A Month by the Lake ($2 million), Feast of July, The Doom Generation, The Addiction, Nadja, The Run of the Country, Total Eclipse, The Stars Fell on Henrietta (all under $1 million)
FLOPSDevil in a Blue Dress ($16 million), Lord of Illusions ($13.3 million), Clockers ($12.9 million), Three Wishes ($9 million), Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain ($9 million), Unstrung Heroes ($8 million), Hackers and The Amazing Panda Adventure ($7.8 million), Last of the Dogmen ($7.4 million), Never Talk to Strangers ($7 million), The Tie That Binds ($5.8 million), Beyond Rangoon ($5.7 million), Angus ($5 million), National Lampoon's Senior Trip ($4.8 million), Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde ($2.7 million), Magic in the Water and The Show ($2.6 million), Moonlight and Valentino ($2.5 million), Mallrats ($2.3 million)
ALL BUDGETS ARE ESTIMATED. ALL GROSSES ARE PROJECTIONS OF FINAL TOTALS (NORTH AMERICAN RELEASE ONLY)