Having weathered a disappointing summer and a dreadful fall, all Hollywood wants for Christmas is a few big hits. ”Right now, (overall box office) is about $200 million behind last year,” says Barry Reardon, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution. ”But if we’d had a Ghost or Presumed Innocent, we’d be looking at the same numbers we had last year, which was a record year.” Hollywood executives are hoping the ’91 holiday lineup will yield at least a couple of successes on that scale, proving that the current slump is only a temporary downturn.
The intense need for hits has made the studios’ jockeying for prime holiday weekends this year even more intense than usual. ”You’re looking to go up against a picture that doesn’t affect your audience,” says Tom Sherak, executive vice president of Twentieth Century Fox. With so many huge releases in contention this Christmas season — after the summer, the year’s peak moviegoing period — the studios have spent weeks shuffling release dates to give their movies an edge over the competition. And the season itself keeps growing longer. Holiday movies used to be released primarily in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Now, says Sherak, ”Christmas starts in November,” just as in the stores. Major Thanksgiving releases have been common since Rocky IV‘s powerhouse opening on Nov. 27, 1985. This year, the holiday contenders are opening as early as Nov. 15.
It’s mouse versus beast. Disney unleashes Beauty and the Beast against Universal and Steven Spielberg’s Mouskewitz saga, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. When the two giants last went opposite each other in 1988, Disney’s Oliver & Company barely edged out Universal’s The Land Before Time by $53.1 million to $47.9 million. Fred Mound, Universal’s president of distribution, concludes, ”We’ve proven in the past that there’s room for two animated features.”
Fox is bucking the kid-oriented thrust of the season’s first half with the Bette Midler musical/drama For the Boys, since its core audience is likely to be adult females. The New York Times has tried to manufacture a battle of dueling divas, matching Midler against Barbra Streisand, whose drama The Prince of Tides opens wide Dec. 18. Fox’s Sherak counters: ”For the Boys should have 75 percent of its gross by the time Prince of Tides comes out.”
The $70 million fantasy Hook is the 800-pound gorilla of the season. Once it claimed Dec. 11 as its opening date, the competition scattered. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was set to open two days later but was bumped up to Dec. 6. Still, Warner is bravely opening Bruce Willis’ The Last Boy Scout in Hook‘s wake on Dec. 13, figuring that as the major male-oriented action movie of the season, it will draw younger guys.
Warren Beatty’s gangster romance Bugsy arrives opposite Oliver Stone’s JFK. Will holiday revelers be ready for such serious fare? ”There’s always room for serious movies if they’re good,” says Warner’s Reardon of JFK. But, while those movies will grab the media’s attention, Disney’s light comedy Father of the Bride may be more in tune with the sentiments of the season.
The studios’ last chance to catch the wave of holiday moviegoers that hits theaters on Christmas Day (and this year is expected to last through Jan. 5). It’s also their last opportunity to qualify for 1991 Academy Award consideration. Fox is plotting a wide opening of its thought-provoking Grand Canyon. Other studios will be promoting limited, L.A./N.Y. openings for such potential Oscar contenders as Fried Green Tomatoes, The Mambo Kings, and Until the End of the World.