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Spring movies are a disappointment

Six lessons for what did not work this season

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Spring has always served as Hollywood’s dumping ground, where movies that aren’t muscular enough for summer or classy enough for fall go to die. But the first four months of 1995 offered particularly bleak news: You knew the season was bad when the hottest movies around were still Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. The $31 million and $40 million that Gump and Pulp respectively added to their totals since the first of the year were more impressive sums than most newcomers could muster. Sure, there were a few bright spots — especially if your name was Sandra Bullock, Will Smith, or Martin Lawrence. But for the most part, 1995 has offered the kind of lessons Hollywood hates: what not to do.

The Pretty Woman formula isn’t as easy as it looks. Disney’s coma comedy, While You Were Sleeping, the season’s biggest hit, is made of ingredients that should be easy to mass-produce: two charming stars, a script with laughs and sentiment, and a plot that closely toes the Cinderella-story line. Sounds simple, but the rest of spring’s romances wilted either because they forgot to include the comedy (Circle of Friends, Before Sunrise), forgot to include the man Muriel’s Wedding), or forgot to include the woman (Don Juan DeMarco). DeMarco and Before Sunrise also fell into a common trap: They overestimated the box office clout of their Gen X leading men.

Period pieces are risky. Especially if they’re light on the romance and heavy on the history. Both Legends of the Fall and Rob Roy offered male-oriented epic adventure, but Legends had Brad Pitt and Rob Roy had Scottish accents. Gary Oldman’s Immortal Beloved got some initial mileage off its classical-music hook but never took off. Merchant Ivory’s Jefferson in Paris snapped the team’s recent winning streak; moviegoers clearly did not lust after Nick Nolte in a powdered wig. Hand it to the British: The Madness of King George broke out of the art-house ghetto on the strength of its lusty acting and Oscar momentum.

Message films don’t sell. Even the most admirable socially conscious dramas are no-win during the spring; this year’s thanks-but-no-thanks subjects included prison torture (Murder in the First), transracial adoptions (Losing Isaiah), drug addiction (The Basketball Diaries), AIDS (The Cure), and the war in Macedonia (Before the Rain).

Neither do tough women. Castle Rock tried to go to the Stephen King well again with Dolores Claiborne, which even starred Misery‘s Kathy Bates. But audiences soon realized that the film’s main horror element was its surly feminism. ”Angry women don’t work anytime,” says Disney senior vice president of marketing Terry Press. ”They alienate the male audience.” Sharon Stone sported six-guns and plenty of attitude, but the Western The Quick and the Dead, which she also coproduced, lived up to only the second half of its name. And Lori Petty’s Tank Girl lived up to only the first half of its name.

Unless Jim Carrey or Tim Allen is involved, the audience for dumb comedies with TV stars is limited. Disney spotlighted Home Improvement‘s Jonathan Taylor Thomas in Man of the House rather than boomer Chevy Chase. The movie played best to young males, who also devoured Chris Farley in Tommy Boy, Adam Sandler in Billy Madison, and Sinbad and Phil Hartman in Houseguest. However, all four movies combined didn’t equal the grosses of either Dumb and Dumber or The Santa Clause. Several other TV stars — David Caruso (Kiss of Death), Paul Reiser (Bye Bye, Love), and Pauly Shore (Jury Duty) — fared even worse. In fact, the spring’s most successful TV-oriented comedy, The Brady Bunch Movie, made its money by pulling in kids, Generation Xers, and baby boomers of both sexes.