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Who's minding the box office?

Hollywood is beset by jitters as the final numbers for ’91 come out

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Bette Midler jumped the gun when she named her 1976 album, Songs for the New Depression. She should have saved the title for 1991, when Hollywood was really singing the recession blues. As the movie industry rang out the old year, it was somewhat buoyed by a handful of last-minute hits that partially offset previous disappointing returns: The year’s total box office receipts climbed to $4.85 billion, down just 3 percent from 1990’s $5.02 billion. But the New Year’s celebrations were tempered by memories of a 12-month ride on a scary financial roller coaster.

The year started out on a deceptive, giddy high as two blockbusters from 1990 — the pint-size Home Alone (which grossed $281.5 million), and the majestic Dances With Wolves ($183.8 million) — kept up their blistering pace. They were quickly joined by two February releases, the chilling The Silence of the Lambs ($130.7 million) and the melodramatic Sleeping With the Enemy ($100.4 million), which kept the crowds coming.

And then the manic-depressive pattern that would characterize 1991 set in: isolated frenzies of ticket buying, followed by long stretches of audience apathy. With the predictable exception of lucrative Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II ($78.6 million), the studios’ spring releases faded fast to red. The box office didn’t pick up again until Fourth of July weekend, when the hero worship accorded Terminator 2: Judgment Day ($204.3 million) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves ($165.5 million) finally seemed to signal an end to the long drought. But, except for a trio of comedies — City Slickers ($123.5 million), The Naked Gun 2 1/2 ($86.9 million), and Hot Shots! ($68.3 million) — the boom quickly faded. Fall was pronounced a disaster in no time, and it wasn’t until The Addams Family ($101.8 million) arrived for Thanksgiving that Hollywood regained its balance.

Which set off a debate: Was the bad box office caused by the recession or simply by bad movies? We’re still waiting for the definitive answer. Certainly clinkers such as V.I. Warshawski ($11.1 million), The Marrying Man ($12.4 million), and the indefensible Hudson Hawk ($17.2 million) deserved their cold shoulders. And proving that quality still counts, John Singleton’s passionate Boyz N the Hood ($56.1 million) and Disney’s rerelease of 1961’s 101 Dalmatians ($60.7 million), were potent draws.

But in their attempt to make better movies, too many Hollywood filmmakers seemed to be addressing each other rather than reaching out to audiences — especially in the cycle of yuppie mea culpas that clogged theaters this summer. Only City Slickers, which leavened its back-to-basics message with comic timing, proved to be a hit, while Regarding Henry ($42.7 million), The Fisher King ($40.6 million), and The Doctor ($38.1 million) all struggled to find sympathetic fans.

When Frankie & Johnny stalled at just $22.2 million, despite generally good reviews and the combined star power of Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, a collective shiver went through the industry. Paramount chairman Brandon Tartikoff, who released the film, quickly announced that in the future he would concentrate on kid-oriented movies. His own pet project, the made-on-the-cheap All I Want for Christmas, didn’t prove to be the answer-it grossed only $14.7 million. But his decision still seemed smart when such expensive adult fare as Billy Bathgate and For the Boys each bottomed out at just over $15 million.

Just as The Gap has prospered in these hard times by hawking simply designed clothes ”for every generation,” the movies that did best this holiday season were those with multigenerational appeal. Based on the fondly remembered ’60s TV show, The Addams Family was perfectly designed to win over nostalgic baby boomers and their kinky kids. Disney convincingly proclaimed that its animated Beauty and the Beast ($88.9 million) offered something for both young and old, then performed a similar sleight of hand with Father of the Bride ($51.3 million). And by playing to every conceivable constituency from fanciful children to dads, Hook is on its way to becoming the season’s biggest hit ($90.7 million).

More serious movies haven’t been able to command the same support. By putting a richly romantic sheen on a tale of a dysfunctional family, Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides has shown the most strength: It scored the highest per-screen average ($7,143) in its first week of wide release of any of the adult movies and has grossed $40.1 million to date. But JFK is still more talked-about than seen, with $37.9 million, and Bugsy, despite the most effusive critical endorsements of the season, has made only $30.2 million.

If grown-up offerings continue to fail at the box office, 1991 will have sent out a truly sad signal. Hollywood, determined to weather the recession by paring budgets and weeding out waste, has already started to look on mature films as prohibitively expensive indulgences. Serious movies haven’t yet been totally abandoned: Releases in the pipeline for 1992 include Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Danny DeVito’s Hoffa bio, and Rob Reiner’s courtroom drama, A Few Good Men, all of which look intriguing on paper.

Nonetheless, the real money is now betting on more clearly commercial movies. The big hope for a box office revival in 1992 rests on — this may have a familiar ring — big-budget sequels: Batman Returns, Alien3, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and Honey, I Blew Up the Kid. And for each of those repeats, you may rest assured, the studios will woo as many cash- and credit-card-bearing kids and parents as possible.

Bucks N the Hood

What was the most successful film of ’91? If you said Terminator 2 you’d be wrong. T2 was the most popular release, with box office receipts exceeding $200 million, but in terms of a percentage return on investment, Boyz N the Hood emerges as the champ. Budgeted at a trifling $6.5 million, Boyz earned $56.1 million. By that system, the $90 million T2 wouldn’t place in the top 20. In this chart we took the best available box office figures and contrasted them with each movie’s estimated costs to determine the year’s best performers. The title is followed by the estimated production budget (excluding prints and advertising), its gross theatrical receipts (excluding ancillary revenues), and the ratios between. Only films released nationally on more that 400 screens were included.

1. Boyz N The Hood
Budget: $6.5 Million
Gross: $56.1 Million
Ratio: 8.63

2. Home Alone
Budget: $8 Million
Gross: $132.3 Million
Ratio: 7.35

3. The Silence Of The Lambs
Budget: $19 Million
Gross: $130.7 Million
Ratio: 6.88

4. New Jack City
Budget: $8 Million
Gross: $47.6 Million
Ratio: 5.95

5. Dances With Wolves
Budget: $22 Million
Gross: $122.5 Million
Ratio: 5.57

6. Sleeping With The Enemy
Budget: $19 Million
Gross: $100.4 Million
Ratio: 5.28

7. City Slickers
Budget: $27 Million
Gross: $123.5 Million
Ratio: 4.57

8. House Party 2
Budget: $5 Million
Gross: $19.0 Million
Ratio: 3.80

9. The Naked Gun 2 1/2
Budget: $23 Million
Gross: $86.8 Million
Ratio: 3.77

10. Teenage Mutant…Turtles II
Budget: $21 Million
Gross: $78.6 Million
Ratio: 3.74

The list includes revenues generated solely in 1991, so several holiday releases missed our cut. The Addams Family, Beauty and the Beast, and Father of the Bride are all headed for ratios of 3.0 and better. Star Trek VI should settle in a half point under that. Likely to bring in twice its budget is The Prince of Tides, while Hook, JFK, Bugsy, and The Last Boy Scout should earn more than their costs. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West and For the Boys will gross less than their budgets. The high-profile flops sized up like this: Billy Bathgate cost $50 million and returned a paltry $15 million; Hudson Hawk, costing $60 million, earned $17 million; and Scenes From a Mall, which cost $34 million, brought in a mere $9.2 million.

Home Alone and Dances With Wolves does not include revenues from 1990.