1994 Summer Box Office Blockbuster Contest Analysis

Overall, it was a great summer for Hollywood at the box office. Seven films made over $100 million (with at least one more likely to top that figure), and two films made over $200 million. At the rate "Forrest Gump" is still raking in the dollars, it could end up over $300 million. "The Lion King" will be pulled from theaters in a couple of weeks, then released again with cleaned-up prints around Thanksgiving. If this maneuver works, it too could top $300 million before the year ends.

There has been a certain amount of industry moaning about it being "famine or feast," but that's not entirely true. Not all the films that failed to top $100 million were utter flops. In the mid-range, "The Client" made around $80 million, "Wolf" made around $65 million, "Angels In the Outfield" made nearly $50 million, and "The Little Rascals" made over $40 million. For that matter, even though they're counted as flops, both "Beverly Hills Cop 3" and "City Slickers 2" made over $40 million. Only the grossly high costs of these films prevented them from being profitable. Once foreign returns, video sales, and cable rentals are in, even these films will probably come near to breaking even.

There were outright flops, and expensive ones. "North" was grossly expensive, and earned only $7 million or so. In addition, it got the worst reviews of the summer. "I Love Trouble" cost vast amounts and returned only $30 million. "Baby's Day Out" and "Getting Even With Dad" were also expensive misfires.

The biggest flop trend was family films. Last year, the industry decided that the parents who had been complaining for years about not enough decent films for their kids really meant it, so they started churning. This summer, in addition to "The Lion King," they put out "The Little Rascals," "Angels in the Outfield," "North," "Getting Even With Dad," "Baby's Day Out," "Little Big League," "Lassie," "Black Beauty," and "Andre." The only successes were the first three, two of which were Disney films. Parents, and their kiddies, stayed away in droves from the rest of them. Now, admittedly, some of these family films were terrible. But others got perfectly good reviews, and the releasers had every right to expect moderate success. Cancel the plans for a G-rated revolution in the industry. (In fact, an article in the last weekly Variety showed that most viewers preferred R-rated films, and would be only slightly more likely to go to a G-rated film than an NC-17-rated one.) I'll bet Michael Medved is crying in his root beer.

In terms of companies, Disney is the big winner. "The Lion King" is the biggest grosser of the summer, and they had a second solid success with "Angels in the Outfield." On the other hand, "I Love Trouble" was an expensive flop. The actual costs of it are easily offset by Disney's hits, but the signal isn't promising. This film was meant to show that Disney could play the big-star, big-film game, and it certainly didn't show that. Disney also struck out with a very adult entry, "Color of Night," at the end of summer. I wouldn't count on them striking a deal with Joe Esterhaz any time soon. Like in the recent summers past, Disney churned out lots of films. Most of them were cheap, and most disappeared quickly with little return. Despite all the problems, though, the success of "The Lion King" is more than enough to make the studio ecstatic. Relatively speaking, it was not an expensive film to make. Even better, Disney doesn't have to share any of the profits with expensive directors and stars. Even better than that, video sales of Disney's animated hits often approach the box office totals, so there's a big Lion King payday yet to come. And the merchandising associated with an animated hit is another huge payoff. Finally, animated hits from Disney perform very well world-wide. Some have suggested that, within three years of its release date, "The Lion King" will have generated revenues of over $1 billion, counting worldwide ticket sales, video sales, merchandising, and so forth. It may be the most profitable film ever made, in terms of absolute dollars. (I know of a low-budget silent film that returned 1000-1 on its investment, which is hard to beat.)

Paramount is the second biggest winner of the summer. "Forrest Gump" has made more money than any Paramount film ever released, and it's still going strong. It could possibly become the top grossing film in the US ever. Paramount has a second solid hit with "Clear and Present Danger." While "Beverly Hills Cop 3" tanked, killing the series, it did at least make enough not to be a write-off. Like almost everyone else's family films, Paramount's did little business. But they weren't expensive to make.

Fox did OK. "True Lies" is the third biggest grossing film of the summer. However, due to its phenomenal costs and the high profit participation for Schwarzenegger and Cameron, even with a good foreign gross it's not going to be worth the making. Sure, they'll make a profit, but looked at in terms of return on investment, it's not that good a deal. However, Fox also has "Speed," which grossed a bit less but produced much more profit. And produced a potential franchise, always something near and dear to a studio's heart, pitiful blackened, tiny thing that it is. Fox had an expensive disaster with "Baby's Day Out," but they can afford it.

The Bros. had a decent summer. "Wyatt Earp" was a box office disaster, but "The Client" and "Maverick" did quite well. WB is having a nice late summer box office surprise with the unexpected success of "Natural Born Killers".

Universal started strong, with "The Flintstones," and had a good end-of-summer boost from "The Little Rascals." "The Shadow" cost them quite a bit, though.

Not that great a summer for Columbia and Tri-Star. Columbia made expensive films that had reasonable grosses, but didn't really pay for themselves, like "Wolf" and "City Slickers 2." Columbia also had to swallow much of the costs of "North." Rob Reiner has made so much money for them in the past, though, that they really can't object too much to this film flopping. Tri-Star didn't release much (their habit over the past year or two), and didn't have luck with what they did release - "It Could Happen To You" had mediocre success, "Wagons East" tanked.

The only bright spot for MGM was that "Blown Away" opened strong. Audiences didn't really like what they saw, however, so it didn't end up doing too well. Their other release was "Getting Even With Dad," which demonstrated that hiring Macauley Culkin was not the solution to their monetary woes.

New Line is a happy camper. "The Mask" did very well, if not quite as well as some had predicted. Since they got Jim Carrey on board before his salary skyrocketed, they get to keep most of the profits. It has strong sequel potential, too. "Corrina, Corrina" is doing mediocre business, but probably didn't cost that much to make.

The lessons of one summer generally have a strong effect on what one will see in future summers. They come too late, in general, to much change the slates for the summer immediately following, so the effects show up two years down the road. What are the lessons of this summer?

1). Disney animation is the most marketable commodity in the business. If Disney doesn't screw it up, they can make a literal fortune with each animated film. That doesn't help other studios much. They're trying to break into the animation market, but Disney animation is really the only brand-name in the film business. Even the most successful non-Disney animated films have done a small fraction of the business that a Disney hit does. None the less, lots of studios are trying.

2). You can still make money with the right commercial elements. Spielberg, special effects, and John Goodman in "The Flintstones." Arnie, Cameron, and action in "True Lies." Mel Gibson as "Maverick." Any film adaptation of a John Grisham novel.

3). Stars aren't enough. Culkin, Julia Roberts, Kevin Costner, and Eddie Murphy didn't save their films from box office disaster. On the other hand, the right star in the right film will bring audiences out, as "Wolf," "Clear and Present Danger," and "The Mask" show. Audiences were moderately unable to resist the notion of Jack Nicholson as a werewolf, and were very receptive to Harrison Ford as a moral man of action and Jim Carrey as a rubber-faced cartoon character. Nobody wanted to see a near adolescent Culkin pummelling more adults, Roberts falling in love with a man 20 years older, Costner moping around the Old West at great length, or Murphy doing the same old schtick.

4). Audiences like original films. That's the lesson of "Forrest Gump," and, for that matter, "Natural Born Killers." Unfortunately, it's the least useful lesson of the summer. Originality is probably the hardest quality to find. And not just any form of originality will do. "Barcelona" is an English language film about modern Americans, and is highly unlike anything else in the market, but it's not cleaning up. "North," God help it, was original, if nothing else.

5). Well made action films are still goldmines. "Speed" proved that. Original special effects please audiences, too, as "The Mask" showed.

My predictions?

Original, unusual films will be a little easier to make. Most of them will suck, but, with luck, we'll see a couple of really good offbeat films that otherwise wouldn't have been made.Unfortunately, we'll also see a bunch of films that try, in various ways, to emulate "Forrest Gump." In particular, we're likely to see lots of nostalgia films aimed at baby boomers, with lots of sixties and seventies music in the soundtracks. All of these will suck.

In two years, we'll be flooded with animated films. Disney's will continue to clean up. One or two of the others will do moderately well. Most of the others will flop. Other than animated films, not that many films directed primarily towards children will be made.

The trend towards making films from old baby boomer television series will continue. Most of them will suck. (There's a bold prediction.)

Eddie Murphy and Macauley Culkin are in deep career doo-doo, and are likely to be much less powerful in a year or two. If their next films don't light up the box offices, no one will want to put up with their antics (and grossly huge salaries). In particular, there's probably a waiting list of people who want to tell Culkin's father to stick his ego where the sun don't shine, as soon as they're sure they don't need his kid anymore. Costner is in slightly less trouble, but he will have difficulty making anything but solid action pictures for a while. Harrison Ford, on the other hand, can make whatever he wants. Keanu Reeves is on the rise, clearly, and we can expect to see him in big action films for some time to come. Nobody blames Julia Roberts now for the failure of "I Love Trouble," but if her next film does poorly, they'll start to.

The action film with strong sequel possibilities will continue to be the studios' Holy Grail. Because of the nature of this type of film, the stakes will continue to rise. Each will need to be more spectacular than the last, resulting in extremely high costs. The established action stars will continue to be in great demand, resulting in high salaries for them and thus even higher per-picture costs. Ditto, to a lesser extent, for the established action directors. This is going to end up being a classic example of the law of supply and demand, in the long run. Eventually, the costs of producing these sorts of films will exceed the rewards. It won't happen in a gradual way. Some year in the not-too-distant future, two or three of the top five grossing films will genuinely lose money for their makers. It might have to happen for a couple of years in a row for the studios to really learn their lesson. Only then will sanity set in.

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Last modified: Fri Sep 16 1994