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What's keeping moviegoers away from the theaters?

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For weeks now, Hollywood executives have been in a funk. Box office has been in free fall, with even the top-grossing movies making as little as $3 or $4 million per weekend. While past spring seasons have been buoyed by at least one $100 million hit, like 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, and 1992’s Basic Instinct, this year no breakthrough movie arrived to lift the doldrums. ”It’s been sort of terrible,” laments Paramount Pictures president of distribution Wayne Lewellen. ”We’ve been short of good product. There just weren’t any big movies like we had last year with Indecent Proposal.”

Although 1994’s overall box office tally is running nearly even with last year’s $1.3 billion, Hollywood is sinking slowly into a sea of red ink. The reason: too many movies crowding into the local cineplex-and not enough moviegoers to go around. Oversupply and lack of demand add up to a season that has bored moviegoers and appalled some studio heads. ”Too many movies, and too many bad movies,” complains MCA-Universal chairman Tom Pollock. ”Admissions didn’t go up, which dilutes the gross. It’s destructive for business and hurts everybody.”

The season started off merrily enough. Mrs. Doubtfire, the comic blockbuster which had already grossed $122 million by 1993’s end, proved friskier than the Energizer bunny and just kept going, raking in almost $100 million more. Not far behind were two year-end releases riding a crest of Oscar buzz, Schindler’s List and Philadelphia, which despite their sobering themes are now closing in on a heartening $97 million and $75 million, respectively. Then along came the entirely unexpected Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which turned the amiably goofy Jim Carrey into an instant star. Probably unaware of the kid appeal Carrey had built up mugging away on Fox’s In Living Color, Warner Bros. was stunned when the aggressively dumb movie debuted to a spectacular $12 million opening weekend. And, though it didn’t make as flashy a first impression, the bubbly British import Four Weddings and a Funeral also settled in for a good long run, which, given its no-frills $5 million budget, turned it into a bracing winner.

But there the good news ended. What went wrong? Here are a few theories that explain why Hollywood is crying in its Evian.

Too many family movies. D2: The Mighty Ducks and Major League II, both aimed at family audiences, were able to gain some support among young moviegoers. But the success of the gooney Ace Ventura notwithstanding, preteens are picky: My Girl 2 (minus its original star, Macaulay Culkin), the animated Thumbelina (minus the Disney touch), and White Fang 2 (minus its original star, Ethan Hawke) all tanked. Apparently, you’re never too young to burn out; one studio executive admits that his child refused to go see White Fang 2, claiming he’d already seen it once.

Generation X decided to wait for the video. Young males, who usually make up the first wave of moviegoers to create a hit, shied away from self- consciously post-boomer attractions like Reality Bites, the ill-named PCU, and the ambisexual Threesome.

Black movies were marketed badly. Thanks to its low cost, House Party 3 could claim a small profit, but it proved the exception. Hollywood ineptly opened a series of black movies-Above the Rim, The Inkwell, You So Crazy-so quickly on the heels of one another that, fighting for a more limited audience, none had the time to establish itself before a new competitor arrived. ”Hollywood doesn’t understand the black market,” suggests screenwriter Michael Mahern (Mobsters). ”Why do they release so many at once with such similar appeal?”

Too many auteur movies. When a director’s obsession pays off, it can pay off big; witness the success of Schindler’s List. But when directors are given free rein, they can also drop a bomb. Even though James L. Brooks sacrificed the musical numbers from his Hollywood romance I’ll Do Anything, it still struck a sour note. Still licking his wounds from the folly of his last grand passion, Toys, Barry Levinson tried a smaller, equally personal tale, Jimmy Hollywood, but again came up begging. And though it boasted brilliant set design, the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy, which also enlisted the enthusiastic support of megaproducer Joel Silver, got the chilliest of box office receptions. Even martial artist Steven Seagal tried to get into the act with his eco-themed On Deadly Ground, but his usual fans rejected his proselytizing.

Movie stars aren’t what they used to be. Kathleen Turner may have proved she’s a good sport by wielding a mean butcher knife in John Waters’ Serial Mom, but she couldn’t reach beyond the eccentric director’s cult audience. Desperate to prove he can still make ’em laugh, ex-talk-show host Chevy Chase stumbled badly in Cops and Robbersons. And despite an ad campaign that almost seemed to be trying to disguise the presence of its star, Michael J. Fox, Greedy did dismal business, convincing some Hollywood insiders that Fox has grown up to become a commercial liability.

Too many bad movies. Lacking strong product, several studios treated the season as if it were a yard sale, using spring to dump problem movies that had long been gathering dust. Orion Pictures, semirecovering from bankruptcy, unloaded Car 54, Where Are You?, Clifford, and The Favor. They found few takers. Miramax tried to pawn off the competing-accents melodrama The House of the Spirits, and Warner tossed away the terminally winsome Being Human-both movies had originally been scheduled as 1993 releases but were delayed when their weaknesses became apparent. Audiences, sensing damaged goods, weren’t buying.

In short, it was all too, too much-which should give Hollywood executives pause. Even as they anticipate the annual stampede of summer moviegoers, they know their problems are far from solved. The summer season will bring the release of more than 50 major movies-a result of increased production among the established studios and a raft of newer competitors like Savoy and Gramercy determined to make their marks. Unfortunately, it’s quality that counts. This spring’s most unnerving lesson for studios may be that moviegoers can smell disaster early enough to decide not to waste their money on a movie ticket. Says one distribution chief, ”If there had been a good film in the group, it would have risen to the top and taken over as Four Weddings did. We can rip off the public for three to 10 days, but after two weeks, the film takes over.” And by then, the odor of failure is impossible to ignore.

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