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1990's Summer movie roundup

1990’s Summer movie roundup — We look back at the season that included ”Ghost,” ”Pump Up the Volume,” and ”Arachnophobia”

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Action doesn’t necessarily speak louder than words — at least that seems to be the moral found amid all the wrecked cars, shattered glass, and spent bullets left behind by Hollywood’s summer movie blowout. The season’s heavy machinery — Bruce Willis’ one-man antiterrorism force, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Red Planet liberator, Warren Beatty’s vintage crime stopper — were all winners, but not one could muster the gusto to surpass a sweet spectral Patrick Swayze learning to say the words ”I love you” in Ghost. The love story-thriller, which has already crossed the magic $100 million mark, materialized seemingly out of nowhere. With none of the advance hype that accompanied the other would-be blockbusters, the unassuming $25 million film charmed moviegoers with its unpredictable mix of comedy and thrills; it will wind up as the summer season’s top grosser.

By contrast, Tom Cruise’s Days of Thunder, the favorite before the summer sweepstakes began, ran out of gas pretty quickly. Its $80 million in ticket sales notwithstanding, the $55 million commercial for stock-car racing will have to be cycled through foreign markets, cable, and video before it turns up any profits.

The season started off with a bang. Until Ghost‘s appearance in mid-July, the nation’s movie screees resembled a demolition derby as, each weekend, another megabudget action picture opened to big grosses and then hit the wall as the genre’s addicts (mostly younger male moviegoers) traded in one movie for a newer one. ”It was almost like a Pacman summer,” says Tom Sherak, Twentieth Century Fox’s executive vice president. ”The new features ate up the ones that opened one or two weeks before.” Ted Mundorff, of the Pacific Theatres chain, adds: ”It’s obvious by Ghost‘s (success) there should have been more of a variety of films out there. They lost some of the adult audience that is now going to Ghost and Presumed Innocent.”

That same audience is still going to see Pretty Woman, 1990’s top-grossing film thus far — although Ghost could give it a run for its considerable money by year’s end. Released in March, the modern Cinderella story scored more than a third of its nearly $170 million during the past three months, outdistancing all but eight of the summer releases. Studio nabobs should have noticed that audiences preferred guy-girl pairings to lone-male adventurers or buddy-buddy duos, but next summer’s lineup, with Bruce Willis’ Hudson Hawk, Terminator II, and Alien III already in the works, hardly looks like a calming trend. Harold Vogel, an entertainment-industry analyst with Merrill Lynch, says, ”They’re all going to do the same thing next summer. The big-budget pictures are already in the pipeline.” The pull of 1989’s Batman, which broke all the summer records by earning more than $230 million by last Labor Day, is obviously hard to resist. Without a movie like Batman to swell the numbers, though, summer ’90 ticket sales will amount to $1.85 billion, down 9 percent from last summer’s record $2.04 billion, according to A.D. Murphy, Variety‘s official keeper of the stats.

”I think expectations were too high,” offers Barry London, Paramount’s president. ”In reality, it was a strong summer, showing pronounced growth, the , second-biggest summer in history.” The problem was that it was also one of the industry’s most expensive summers, what with the $40-60 million budgets and $20-30 million promotional campaigns that characterized the first wave of action flicks. ”Business was not all that impressive given the cost that was built into the pictures,” counters Voggl.

When expensive vehicles such as Days of Thunder, Another 48 HRS., and Back to the Future III failed to break the $100 million mark, it was hard to fight the perception that they were relative failures. So eager was the media to measure every big-budget film against Batman, that even a bona fide hit like Dick Tracy was found somehow wanting. The masterful Disney marketing machine had to resort to some spin doctoring to prove that its comic-strip flatfoot was no joker.

Identifying the summer’s big l lers was a lot easier. Arachnophobia, hyped as ”Jaws with legs,” proved to be more of a Jaws without teeth, topping out at just over $47 million. By promoting the movie as a scary comedy instead of a comic scare, Disney failed to attract hard-core horror fans. Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which likewise played it more for jokes than chills, stalled at $40 million. The egregious Andrew Dice Clay, who boasted on The Arsenio Hall Show, ”When they all go to see (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane), they’re going to laugh,” turned out to be all bark and little bite; his movie earned only $20 million.

Stardom was no guarantee of box-office clout, either: Robin Williams didn’t win over audiences as an unscrupulous car salesman in Cadillac Man — its $27 million was a c cedown from the $95 million Williams garnered with last summer’s Dead Poets Society. Directing himself in the amiable Quick Change, Bill Murray couldn’t get arrested. And the memory-drenched The Two Jakes, which Jack Nicholson single-handedly resurrected, was no Chinatown, and died a quick death.

There were other signs of life, however. The family audience, having already rewarded Disney’s reissue of 1967’s animated Jungle Book with a healthy return on its non-investment, was desperate for something else to take the kids to. Which was the only way to explain the freak hit Problem Child, the critically lambasted comedy about a satanic adoptee.

Clearly, summer audiences were demanding variety, even if, for much of the season, Hollywood was offering them more of the same. Copycat action movies have begun to wear out their welcome. To paraphrase Ghost, just saying ”Ditto” isn’t enough.

Winners & Losers

Otherworldly Smash
Ghost ($111.5)

Freak Success
Problem Child ($40.9)

Predictable Hits
Total Recall ($115.9)
Die Hard 2 ($107.3)
Dick Tracy ($103.3)

Underachievers
Back to the Future Part III ($83.3)
Days of Thunder ($79.1)
Another 48 HRS. ($78.5)

Solid Performers
Bird on a Wire ($69.4)
Presumed Innocent ($59.6)
The Jungle Book ($39.7)
Flatliners ($32.2)
Young Guns II ($31.1)

Disappointments
Arachnophobia ($47.1)
Robocop 2 ($44.1)
Gremlins 2: The New Batch ($39.9)
Cadillac Man ($27.3)
Air America ($21.9)

Lost in the Shuffle
NavySeals ($21.7)
Ghost Dad ($21.3)
The Adventures of Ford Fairlane ($20.4)
Betsy’s Wedding ($19.6)
Jetsons: The Movie ($18.1)
The Freshman ($17.8)
FireBirds ($14.7)
DuckTales: The Movie ($14.6)
Taking Care of Business ($9.0)

Fallen Stars
Quick Change ($14.6)
My Blue Heaven ($13.2)
The Two Jakes ($8.7)

Jury’s Still Out
The Exorcist III ($16.6)
Darkman ($8.1)
Pump Up the Volume ($2.4)