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What makes a Hollywood hit or flop in 1993

Christmas Box Office 1993

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As the Christmas movie season approached, visions of untold riches danced in the heads of studio executives both naughty and nice. Instead, 1993’s holiday theme turned out to be ”The Nightmare After Christmas.” As the studios count the lumps of coal in their stockings, Hollywood is puzzling over some bewildering lessons from a very strange season:

—Sequels aren’t what they used to be.

Filling theaters with follow-ups to the blockbusters The Addams Family, Wayne’s World, and Sister Act only looked like a safe bet. In fact, not one of the three sequels will pull in even half of its predecessor’s take. That’s especially bad news for the coming year, in which studios have more than a dozen IIs, IIIs, and IVs on their schedules.

—Don’t plan ahead. Rushing a movie into theaters pays off.

Disney’s troubled Western Tombstone was barely finished in time for its Christmas Day release, and Warner Bros.’ modern maturity comedy Grumpy Old Men wasn’t due until later this winter. Hurried along, both have become surprise hits. In contrast, the carefully planned Clint Eastwood-Kevin Costner collaboration, A Perfect World, was the year’s most unexpected failure, expiring at $29 million. — Serious subjects make fine holiday fare.

Which is why Schindler’s List has been able to take in more than $10 million in very limited release, a total that will skyrocket as the film plays through Oscar season. The esoteric import The Piano has already made $20 million and is still going strong. And hopes are high for Philadelphia (AIDS and homophobia), Shadowlands (cancer), and In the Name of the Father (political prisoners) as their releases widen.

—Serious subjects make terrible holiday fare.

Which is why moviegoers have already rejected Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth, and why the old-age drama Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, overshadowed by the more cheerful Grumpy Old Men, is playing to empty houses.

—There are a still a couple of sure things, right?

Yes. Their names are Robin Williams and Julia Roberts. The rest is mystery.