1996 Summer Box Office Blockbuster Contest Analysis

The total US box office for the summer was up nearly three percent from last year. Too bad that the costs of making and marketing this summer's films went up more than 10%. While a cursory view of the state of the film business looks pretty damn good, a closer examination is not so heartening.

Film costs continue to rise at the kind of rates that demand a change in how Hollywood does business. They're still making money, but it's a lower and lower percentage every year and all the trends are in the wrong direction. If the trends continue, they won't be making money much longer.

The most interesting phenomenon of the summer was the disappearance of sequels. We got "Crow 2" and "A Very Brady Sequel" towards the end of the year, but otherwise we were pretty much sequel-free. As events have shown, however, you don't have to be making sequels to lack originality.

The biggest hit of the summer was, of course, "Independence Day." As of last week, it had made over $282 million in the US (not to mention another $135 million overseas, with many territories still not showing it and most of the others early in the run). It's still making around $6 million a week, and is exhibiting strong staying power.

Next is "Twister." If "Independence Day" hadn't hit so big, we'd all be talking of the phenomenal success of "Twister," which has made $239 million, and isn't quite done yet. Again, it's popular overseas, though its $149 million gross there will undoubtedly be stomped by "Independence Day" in the fullness of time. Coming in third is "Mission: Impossible," at $178 million domestic and $187 million foreign. (Its foreign gross is also destined to be easily eclipsed.) "The Rock" did $131 million domestic, $126 foreign. "The Nutty Professor" made $121 million, and has barely played outside the US yet. "Eraser" has topped $100 million domestic, and is nearly there in the foreign market. "Phenomenon" also topped $100 million.

It's pretty clear that "Independence Day" and "Twister" gave audiences exactly what they wanted. Thus, Hollywood will attempt to figure out what the hell that was and give them more of it. Best guesses are that effects matter (but not that much - "Dragonheart" and "The Frighteners" disappointed), action matters (but isn't sufficient - "The Phantom" and "Supercop" underperformed), proven action directors are helpful (but not infallible - Andrew Davis flopped with "Chain Reaction"), and scriptwise, the KISS principle applies - "keep it simple, stupid."

Moving on to winners and losers, first Disney. They're both. Now, you may think that Mickey's wearing black over the disappointing grosses for the very expensive (and expensively promoted) "Hunchback of Notre Dame." If so, it's black with white stripes, because that film is likely to end up as the first or second most profitable film of the summer. Disney is expected to make a $450 million profit off it, within a couple of years. How can that be? Think videocassettes. Think lots and lots and lots of videocassettes. As well as the foreign market, of course. And, unlike just about everyone else, Disney keeps it all. No partner splitting the profits (like on "Twister"), no expensive talent taking their cut (like on "Mission: Impossible," "Eraser," and even "Independence Day"), just a never-ending flow of dollars heading towards Burbank. And "never-ending" is not a figure of speech here. With minor exceptions, Disney continues to make money off every animated film they've ever done at rates far exceeding other films of similar age. Disney also made good money off "The Rock," "Phenomenon," and "Spy Hard," and even "Jack" and "Eddie" chipped in. They can afford to swallow "Kazaam" and a few other busts.

Still, while a $450 million profit on one film is extraordinarily nice, it's a bit less than half as nice as a $1 billion profit on one film, which is what "The Lion King" returned. Even more disturbing is the clear downward trend in animated film performance after that film. So Disney must be figuring that the animation line needs some kind of shakeup and return to what was working so well. The difficulty is figuring out what the hell that was.

Throwing in Miramax helps Disney's totals, too. Miramax did their usual business, making around 2% of the gross on films that probably cost less than 1% of the total spent making summer movies. Miramax is the past master of making the $1 and $2 million grossers add up, and bringing in an occasional $10-$20 million grosser. That's just what they did this summer, for the benefit of Disney's bottom line.

Another winner is clearly Fox. "Independence Day" is vastly profitable. The writer/producer and director have a piece of the profits, but most of it goes to the studio. They'll make as much money off of it as Disney will off "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and the chances of "ID4 Part 2" are a lot better than "The Return of Quasimodo." "Chain Reaction" tanked, but "Courage Under Fire" did decent business and got fine reviews.

Paramount does nicely off "Mission: Impossible," though a lot of the profit goes Tom Cruise's way, and some Brian De Palma's. That makes up for little miscues like "The Phantom" and "Escape From L.A." The sequel's script is already being written. A cheap late-season success with "A Very Brady Sequel" and the prospect of substantially improving "Harriet the Spy's" $26 million take on video adds to the pleasure.

Warner Bros had a good, solid summer. They have half-rights in "Twister," and while Amblin will siphon off a big chunk of profits, there's some to go around for all. After foreign grosses are tabulated, even if "Eraser" did cost $100 million to make it will be very profitable. "A Time To Kill" made excellent money, and "Tin Cup" is doing nicely. WB's expensive films did well, so they won't care that cheap junk like "Carpool" and "Joe's Apartment" tanked.

Universal has more mixed success. They have the other half of "Twister," and "The Nutty Professor" did far better than anyone expected. That's where the good news ends, though. "Dragonheart" would look good with a gross in the low fifties, if it hadn't cost so much, taken so long to make, and had such a big ad campaign. As it stands, they've got to be wishing they hadn't made it. They certainly wish they'd passed on "Flipper" and "The Frighteners."

Things start to get gloomy after this. Sony, in particular, is an unhappy camper. "Striptease" proved that, yes, there is such a thing as bad publicity. "The Fan" demonstrated that promising pieces don't always lead to a good film. "Matilda" looks like a nice little profit, at around $31 million, till you learn that they somehow spent $55 million making it. "Multiplicity" got ambushed by the Olympics. And then there's "The Cable Guy." Sony's returns from the domestic box office on this film were just a bit higher than Jim Carrey's salary. And most of the Sony films were trashed by the critics, too. The high point of the summer for Sony is that they got great reviews (but little box office) for "Lone Star," released through their Sony Classics division.

MGM/UA destroyed any momentum they had built up with "Goldeneye" last year and "The Birdcage" earlier. "Moll Flanders" was a disaster, and films like "Fled," "Kingpin," and "House Arrest" made folks wonder whether the current management is quite as strong as recent successes suggested.

New Line gave us "The Island of Dr. Moreau," "The Adventures of Pinocchio," and "The Stupids." Literary adaptations proved not to be a wise gamble this summer, on the whole. Neither was Robert Altman, whose "Kansas City" pleased neither critics nor audiences in very large numbers.

Orion tested the waters of film releasing again with "The Arrival," and found them too chilly. Just goes to show that, no, audiences won't go for *any* alien invasion film.

In terms of individuals, the summer's winners are Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin (riding high off "Independence Day"), Michael Crichton ("Twister" confirms his golden touch), John Grisham (who proved that he's able to defeat the Olympics, unlike anyone else), and Michael Bey (hot off "The Rock"). Jan de Bont confirmed his stature as a major action director. Eddie Murphy and Brian De Palma both gave their careers much needed boosts. Arnold Schwarzenegger did not completely dispel lingering doubts about his continued popularity, but clearly audiences will still come to see him shoot crocodiles and jump out of planes without a parachute. Tom Cruise finally built himself a nice little franchise to come back to whenever the box office weather gets too chilly. John Travolta continued his comeback rather convincingly. Kevin Costner had his status as a light comedian confirmed, which, after a few rather dour roles, couldn't hurt. Nicholas Cage looks a lot more desirable to producers looking for a way to add a hint of originality to otherwise formula films.

Losers? Demi Moore. "Striptease" has killed the idea that she can carry a big budget film. Jim Carrey also got hurt, though not mortally. The common wisdom on "The Cable Guy" is audiences want to see him doing Ace Ventura-style schtick, not stretching as an actor. Alas, the next couple films he has lined up are stretching exercises. The producers of his next one, "Liar, Liar," are frantically trying to convince people that they actually are making a moronic comedy for 8-year-olds, rather than a piece that sounded like it was written more for Michael Keaton. Speaking of whom, "Multiplicity" didn't do him any good. Michael J. Fox is fortunate to have a TV series lined up. Paul Hogan better dust off his "Crocodile Dundee III" script, as pretty clearly nobody in America wants to see him in any other role. Dennis Quaid still fails to find that breakout role that everyone seems to think will eventually come his way. Tony Scott and Andrew Davis didn't help their careers any. Peter Jackson's Hollywood-in-New-Zealand plan is now riding rather heavily on a "King Kong" remake.

And what are the lessons of this summer?

The biggest lesson of the summer - action films are still the undeniable king. That's where the real money is, and that's your best shot at cleaning up big.

Audiences like their stars in familiar roles. They don't want them to stretch and expand. Of course, sooner or later they get tired of seeing them doing the same thing over and over. A dilemma for actors, particularly those whose appeal is not based on talent.

Even Disney animation is not a sure fire commodity. This has to be somewhat disturbing to all the studios firing up their own animation branches, at fantastic cost. Yes, Disney made a mint on "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," but that mint is largely based on a pattern the studio has built up using its more successful films. They can afford an occasional less-popular film in the pipeline without damaging the pattern, but sooner or later buying the video of the last Disney animated movie or going to Disneyland to see the parade from that movie will not be something every parent will want to do with their child.

There are a handful of novelists whose works are box office gold. Grisham, Crichton, and perhaps Clancy are the complete list. They have somehow tapped into what Americans are interested in, and also write books well suited for adaptation to films. This phenomenon is quite compelling for Hollywood, and a strong desire of all the studios is to find the next big novelist. Variety has started to publish a weekly list of hot books about to come out that have strong film potential. Of course, the studio's closets are littered with expensive books that have been made into unprofitable films, or not even filmed at all.

The studios have paid attention to their rising costs and dwindling grosses. Their response seems to be to cut down on the number of films made, but to make no serious attempt to cut the costs of big films. Since most of the high grossing films of the summer were also very expensive, that actually makes some business sense, particularly when you consider how many intermediately-priced films topped out at $20 million grosses. While this approach may help for a year or two, it does not attack the fundamental problem, which is that film costs are rising much faster than profits.

Next summer's schedule is already set, so there's little time for the studios to apply the lessons learned. But films like "Volcano" and "Dante's Peak" clearly have gotten boosts from "Twister." John Grisham novels are being snapped up for fantastic prices as soon as they emerge from his word processor - sometimes sooner. Science fiction can be expected to get serious attention from studios. And two summers from now, all the lessons from this summer are likely to show up in force.

Back to the film contest page.

Last modified: Fri Sep 16 1994