1995 Summer Box Office Blockbuster Contest Analysis

1995 was a pretty good summer for Hollywood in some ways, but not so good in others. Depending on who you listen to, the total box office haul for the summer was slightly below or slightly above last year's take. That's where the similarities to last season end, however.

The biggest film of the summer was "Batman Forever," which grossed $181,401,070. "Apollo 13," the next biggest film, grossed about $20 million less. "Batman Forever" is still making about $1.5 million a week, and "Apollo 13" twice that, so either or both of them might crawl up to the $200 million mark. But no film this summer approaches the popularity of either "The Lion King" or "Forrest Gump." The reasons for that are a topic of hot debate in the industry.

The most commonly heard explanation is that there were too many large films coming out this summer. No single film had an opportunity to build up a huge audience because a new film would come out the next week to suck up the ticket buyers. This was an extraordinarily crowded summer. If you like big, expensive action films and don't much care about whether they're really exceptional, this was the summer for you. Week after week we had new films illustrate different ways in which to maim and kill people and different milieus in which to do so. But no film of the summer had the kind of impact "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Batman," "The Road Warrior," or "Die Hard" had. In other words, no one is currently thinking up ways to rip off this summer's action films, and none of them is likely to start a new sub-genre.

Beyond action films, there was something for most audiences. Comedies were largely represented by the poorly reviewed, but widely attended, "Nine Months." "Clueless" provided a surprisingly well-reviewed and popular alternative, and made Alicia Silverstone into a major star. Glossy adult drama weighed in with "The Bridges of Madison County." "Something to Talk About," "A Walk in the Clouds," and "Dangerous Minds" provided further late-season material for adults. Children (and those mature enough not to bridle at being entertained by a film that entertains children) could not only attend "Pocahontas," but also "Babe." They could have attended "A Little Princess" and "The Indian in the Cupboard," too, but did so in much smaller numbers. Horror films did OK, especially the largely unheralded "Species," which cleverly captured a niche in the crowded market.

Another trend that surprised observers is that smaller art films for adults have held their own in the summer season, which is traditionally seen as the time for the loudest, most mindless entertainments Hollywood can put out. "The Postman," "Smoke," the re-release of "Belle de Jour," "Kids," "Unzipped," "Jeffrey," "The Usual Suspects" and several others have all done quite well this summer. And, way down there at the bottom of the Variety box office chart, "Pulp Fiction" still brings in a few thousand dollars a week - it's made more money than all but three of these "big summer films," at somewhere between a fifth and a twentieth of their cost.

Winners and losers - first, the studios. Universal wins big. "Waterworld" was not a financial or critical debacle, and Matsushita ate almost all the costs, so they're already into profit, and expecting good results overseas. In addition, they had the prestige successes of the summer with "Apollo 13" and "Babe."

Warner Bros does OK. "Batman Forever" did well enough to keep the highly profitable series going, and is expected to bring in lots of foreign bucks. "Free Willy 2" and, to a lesser extent, "Under Seige 2" did not do as well for the Bros, but they were successful enough to make their money back eventually. Warner had their own prestige hit with "The Bridges of Madison County," which practically guarantees them at least an Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep. None of their big films tanked, which is always a pleasure for a studio.

Disney had a mixed bag. "Judge Dredd" did tank. It was a vastly expensive film, and did not click. (Conventional wisdom says that the comic-book based film had to get a PG-13 rating to allow its major audience to attend.) Time will tell whether the foreign grosses bring it into profit. "Pocahontas" was the third biggest grosser of the summer, and probably the film that actually made the most dollars in profit. And yet . . . This film did so much less well than "The Lion King" that Disney has to be disappointed. One presumes that it will not do as well on video, either, though you could still bury the Magic Kingdom under the pile of cassettes of "Pocahontas" that parents will snap up six to nine months from now. Apparently the merchandising is a strong success for the film, always a consideration for Disney. Still, there has to be some concern about whether they're stepping too far from the kinds of animated films that have traditionally brought Disney success - fairy tales and talking animals. Next up is "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," another somewhat unlikely choice for Disney, and there have to be some worried producers at Mouse Central. "Crimson Tide" did well, but some of Disney's smaller kids films did little business. The Miramax arm of the company performed unexpectedly well over the summer, no doubt to Eisner's gratification. It partially made up for the bad publicity from "Kids."

Paramount had a good time celebrating the success of their ad campaign for "Congo," which turned a probable flop into a success. "Clueless" made them lots of money, but "Virtuosity" and "The Indian in the Cupboard" did not. "Braveheart" made over $60 million in the US alone, and is expected to do even better overseas, but apparently Mel Gibson has a heavy profit participation in the film, limiting Paramount's profits.

Fox also had a mixed bag, with good results from "Die Hard With a Vengeance" and "Nine Months," poor results from "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and "Bushwhacked." "Die Hard With a Vengeance" is already cleaning up in some of the big overseas markets, so that series is clearly alive and well, and should be heard from again in a year or two.

Sony is the obvious loser of the summer. "First Knight" was one of the casualties of the crowded season. The general feeling is it would have done much better in the spring. Other Sony films had mediocre-to-weak results. Their best film of the summer was "Bad Boys," which actually opened in the spring.

MGM/UA had a moral success. This company still needs to prove that they are again playing in the big leagues. The grosses of "Species" helped a lot. Their other releases were not so successful, but any hit at all is a big deal for them. Their real test is the autumn, where "Showgirls" and "Goldeneye" (both under the UA label) at least have the possibility of being big hits.

In terms of actors, Sylvester Stallone does not win for failing to bring the patrons in to "Judge Dredd," but he's largely a foreign market star today, anyway. Tom Hanks further solidifies his position by appearing in yet another successful, prestigious picture. Kevin Costner doubtless will get the credit for "saving" "Waterworld" - if it isn't exactly a phoenix rising from the ashes, at least it's a limping dog emerging with the majority of its body parts intact from the rat pit. Bruce Willis maintained his action film credentials. Denzel Washington had a mixed bag, between "Crimson Tide" and "Virtuosity." Mel Gibson successfully established himself as a director, while simultaneously demonstrating his star power in "Braveheart." Hugh Grant successfully redeemed himself. The scandal will never be quite forgotten, but clearly it hasn't killed his career. Alicia Silverstone has become a genuine star, Julia Roberts and Michelle Pfeiffer have enhanced their reputations for opening films, and Sandra Bullock looks to be solidly established.

The big winners among the directors are Joel Schumacher, who's attached himself to a successful series and established credentials as an action director; Chris Columbus, clearly one of those on the short list for romantic comedies; and Clint Eastwood, who is seen to have expanded his repertoire. John McTiernan has redeemed himself from the "Last Action Hero" debacle. The biggest loser has to be Kevin Reynolds, who walks away with most of the blame and little of the credit for "Waterworld." Which is probably unfair, but Hollywood has never been fair. Danny Cannon, the director of "Judge Dredd," will probably not join the small ranks of the action film directors studios lust after. Bryan Singer, on the other hand, is likely to be able to parlay "The Usual Suspects" into the same kind of opportunity Cannon had, if he wants to.

What have the studios learned from the summer, and what can we expect to see in the future? Action sells. Scheduling is everything. (The fact that "Waterworld" had little serious new competition for several weeks is widely credited with making it successful.) Budgets are too big, but nobody knows how to trim them. Everyone will want to make smart, fresh films like "Babe" and "Clueless" and "Apollo 13," but, as always, talent and inventiveness are one of Hollywood's least common commodities. So there will be more lip service to originality than daring films actually made. Films for children can be tough sells, so unless you do them cheaply enough you're risking a lot. "A Little Princess" will probably return its investment, despite a weak showing, but the much more expensive "The Indian in the Cupboard" will not. On the other hand, children's films are the 500 pound gorilla of video sales, so even a not-very-successful theatrical release of a children's film can live again for weeks or months on the video bestseller list.

So expect more of the same next summer, but perhaps in smaller doses. Large action films still rule. Sequels are still potential cash cows. The big stars are still big.

Animation has suffered somewhat of a blow. Just as the other studios are trying to ramp up their animation production, "Pocahontas" produced disappointing numbers for Disney, and "Arabian Knight" tanked completely. Two new short cartoons, a Mickey Mouse from Disney and a Bugs Bunny from WB, apparently failed to draw vast numbers of people to the live-action weaklings they were attached to. Some of the folks spending tens of millions in up-front animation studio setup costs that cannot possibly be recouped for some years have to be asking themselves questions.

One likely heartening trend will be more intelligent alternative fare next summer. Miramax's success with summer arthouse releases is likely to translate to more such releases next year. For some time, most of the studios have had a "prestige" arm that releases foreign and independently made American films. (Sony Classics is one of the most active.) I expect these arms to get a better workout over the entire course of the next year, including the summer. If we keep going to see such films, the trend will be re-enforced. Take that as a hint.

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Last modified: Fri Sep 16 1994