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Coming soon to a theater near you

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Summertime is no time to take a vacation in Hollywood. For the next three months, the studios’ distribution executives will spend their weekends working the telephone, poring over computer printouts, fine-tuning ad campaigns, and juggling TV commercial buys. Then, come Monday mornings, they’ll do a little spin-doctoring with the press as they analyze the weekend box-office returns that spell success or failure for the would-be blockbusters scheduled to roll off the assembly line before fall.

According to Hollywood’s idiosyncratic calendar, the summer shoot-out began on May 18 when Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn’s lethal weapon, Bird on a Wire, took on Robin Williams’ fast-talking Cadillac Man. And the contest continues through Labor Day, by which time box offices nationwide should register at least 40 percent of their annual take. (In 1989, that amounted to a record-shattering $2 billion and change.)

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Unless a major summer movie grosses over $100 million, it’s considered a disappointment. And since opening weekend figures predict a movie’s eventual muscle, any big-budget film that grosses less than $20 million in its first three days will be dismissed as a failure. On the other hand, a contender that approaches the record $42 million scored by Batman during its opening weekend last summer probably will be hailed immediately as a champion.

Since, at this late date, little can be done to improve the films themselves, it’s the distribution chiefs who are feeling the pressureas they try to maneuver their movies into the most advantageous positions at the starting gate. The goal is to avoid opening a movie against strong competition. But with nearly 40 studio features set to debut over 16 weekends, head-on collisions are inevitable, even though executives have spent the last few months shuffling their hot releases.

”There is no vacuum available during the summer months. That’s when everyone attempts to release their big-budget films, because the market is so much broader and you have the ability to recoup the dollars,” observes Wayne Lewellen, Paramount Pictures’ president of domestic distribution. ”You don’t find a situation like we enjoyed (this spring) with The Hunt for Red October, when there was virtually no competition against us.”

Approaching the crowded summer calendar as if it were a minefield, Tom Sherak, Twentieth Century Fox’s head of distribution and marketing, concedes, ”This has got to be the worst year in recent memory when it comes to pictures changing their release dates. There’s so much jockeying going on because the marketplace has gotten crueler. You have one shot. If you miss, bang, you’re dead. It’s not just a question of buying your way in with money and paid advertising. Positioning is just as important.”

Consider Fox’s own The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, starring comic Andrew Dice Clay as a hip private investigator. It has bounced all over the calendar: Originally penciled in for June 8 opposite Tom Cruise’s Days of Thunder, it was switched to May 25 when test screenings turned up positive — a move that allowed it two more weeks of playing time while also steering clear of Cruise. Then, as optimism grew, it was bumped to May 18. Further research revealed that while test audiences liked the movie, they hadn’t really known who the heck Clay was, at least prior to the dubious publicity surrounding his Saturday Night Live appearance. So the studio hastily postponed Fairlane‘s opening until July 6 so that a trailer promoting it, and introducing him, could be attached to Die Hard 2, set to precede it into theaters by two weeks. (Keep reading and see howFairlane‘s road got even bumpier.)

The summer’s programmers have themselves been poring over their date books since last November, when Universal Pictures claimed May 25, the beginning of the always lucrative Memorial Day weekend, for Back to the Future Part III. Walt Disney Pictures soon launched a similar preemptive bid by announcing that Dick Tracy, its movie-merchandising juggernaut, would open June 15, another of the season’s prime weekends, since by that time most kids are out of school. The rest of the town kept its distance.

Although Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Martian adventure,was briefly slated opposite Tracy, it has since been moved up to June 1. The switch guarantees Recall two more weeks of exposure and also helps it avoid eclipse by the anticipated Tracy media blitz.

For a few weeks, it looked as if Tracy would debut unopposed, ensuring an all-important big opening week. But then, with calculated audacity, Warner Bros. jumped into the breach, moving its Gremlins 2: The New Batch from May 18 to June 15. According to prerelease marketing research studies commissioned by the studios, Tracy may appeal to an older audience. Warner hopes that Gremlins will attract younger moviegoers who might have more interest in Gizmo and his gang than in Warren and Madonna. If their parents want to come along, somuch the better. Counterprogramming, long a staple of prime-time TV strategizing, is now an increasingly important element in summermovie scheduling.

This season’s lineup has been further complicated by production delays on two mega-releases — the Cruise autorama, Days of Thunder, and the Bruce Willis disaster derby Die Hard 2. Originally, Thunder was to have roared onto the track on May 23, to take full advantage ofthe Memorial Day crowds. But with principal photography not completed until April 27, its opening had to be deferred to June 8. When keeping that date also seemed impossible, Paramount drafted Another 48 HRS., the Eddie Murphy-Nick Nolte reteaming, to fill the slot, even though it hadn’t completed filming until April 18. Thunder is now scheduled for June 27. By opening on a Wednesday, instead of themore conventional Friday, Paramount is trying to jump-start the movie by separating it slightly from the field.

Meanwhile, because of production delays, Fox has had to shift Die Hard 2 from its targeted June 22 debut to July 4, where it could still occasion fireworks. This switch set the domino theory in action. The studio was then forced to postpone Ford Fairlane yet again, from July 6 to July 13. (You were warned not to mark up your calendar in ink!)

Despite the dead-serious competitiveness of all this jockeying, the studios aren’t really trying to knock each other off, of course. Their hope is that a steady stream of summer entries will perform more like a relay team, with the baton of box-office success being handed off from week to week.

Conventional Hollywood wisdom still insists that a big movie means good business for everyone because it gets people into the theaters. But with no apparent megahit like Batman on the horizon (then again, few predicted Batman‘s success), the studios are hedging their bets. In lieu of one ultrablockbuster scoring more than $200 million in ticket sales, they’re predicting that a healthy string of $100 million plus winners will break — or at least equal — last summer’s records.

”Is there another grand slam out there? I don’t think so, though stranger things have happened,” says Fred Mound, Universal’s president of distribution. ”But are there a lot of home runs? I think so.” A rival distribution chief, speaking under assurances of anonymity, suggests that the frenzy of schedule changes points to an underlying nervousness. ”Some of these pictures have moved considerably. For a couple of them, it’s because (the studios) didn’t know their exact availability, but for others, it’s because they’re not strong enough and they will fall out.”

Even allowing for the summer success stories that will play on into the fall, the calendar can be stretched only so far. By the time satiated summer moviegoers return to jobs and schools, the studio strategists, however brilliantly or ineptly they’ve played their hands, will need a vacation themselves.

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