As the 1992 box office derby careened to a finish — with the splendid Aladdin making magic and the unfortunate Toys looking like a broken Christmas present — Hollywood was taking its cues from Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen: It was running as fast as it could just to stay in place.
In November, the pre-Thanksgiving openings of Dracula ($30.5 million in its first three days) and Home Alone 2 ($31 million its first weekend) had kicked off a premature celebration. The most cockeyed optimists predicted that the Christmas haul would top 1991’s record-setting holiday grosses of $742.8 million and that ’92’s total box office might squeeze past 1989’s record $5.03 billion.
But while Christmas had its hits — including an unprecedented four releases that have already or will soon pass the $100 million mark (Home Alone 2, Aladdin, A Few Good Men, and The Bodyguard) — momentum slowed as weaker entries (The Distinguished Gentleman, Leap of Faith, Hoffa) reached the screen. Some small movies, like The Crying Game, played extremely well, and a few big ones set records — Aladdin became Disney’s hottest ticket ever, trumpeting a one-week gross of $32.2 million between Christmas and New Year’s. But for the industry as a whole, the seasonal tidings weren’t all joyous.
Overall, the critical holiday season did achieve a record of $783.4 million, and Hollywood closed its books on an estimated $4.9 billion in total ticket sales, making 1992 the third-best year in its history, behind 1989 and 1990. But that was largely due to higher ticket prices: 1992’s revenues were up 2 percent over ’91’s, but the number of tickets sold was down by 1 percent. Still, given the recession and the fact that grosses had earlier been running 5.6 percent behind ’91’s, the final tallies were a victory of sorts.
”For the business to do as well as it did in a year that saw the most devastating recession in decades just reconfirms that when we give our audiences good movies they will come — in droves,” insisted Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. Furthermore, domestic box office is only part of Hollywood’s profit picture: Add in $5 billion in anticipated foreign sales and another $11 billion or so from video and TV, and the industry’s bottom line looks surprisingly healthy.
But the up-and-down Christmas season underlined some hard lessons learned during a very uneven year. Last winter brought early highs with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle ($87.5 million) and Wayne’s World ($121.6 million); a sputtering spring saw Newsies hit a low note ($2.7 million) and City of Joy prove joyless ($14.3 million); summer had mixed returns in which movies had huge opening weekends, such as Batman Returns ($162.7 million) and Alien3 ($54.7 million), then tailed off dramatically; and a surprisingly robust fall was buoyed by such adventure-dramas as Unforgiven ($75 million) and The Last of the Mohicans ($70.3 million). Among the main conclusions Hollywood is drawing:
BIOPICS ARE THE WORST BET
Great people may rule the history books, but this year they didn’t cut it on the screen. Like Hoffa ($19.6 million to date ), the $30 million Chaplin, now moving into national release, is a disappointment ($3.5 million); The Babe earned a weak $17 million; and the dueling Christopher Columbus movies almost fell off the end of the earth: Christopher Columbus — The Discovery brought in $7.9 million and 1492: Conquest of Paradise disappeared with $7 million.
And although the industry watched Spike Lee’s Malcolm X closely, the same could not be said for moviegoers. Despite a strong $9.8 million opening weekend, it appears headed for an eventual gross of $50 million. That would make it Lee’s most popular movie, but it’s far short of what Warner Bros. and Lee himself hoped for the heavily promoted, $35 million epic. Industry insiders cite Malcolm‘s length (3 hours, 21 minutes), its seriousness, and a Spike backlash for its failure to reach blockbuster status. ”People are tired of him shooting his mouth off,” grumbled one disgruntled Warner Bros. executive. ”I really think he’s hurt himself.” In an observation that applies to the whole, high-minded biopic genre, which he calls ”spinach pictures,” Variety analyst A.D. Murphy said, ”Audiences don’t go to them just because they’re good for you.”