Summer movie tally: 1991 -- The season smiled on a few films, like ''Terminator 2,'' while frowning on others

In the summer of 1991, movie men found their hearts, movie women flexed their muscles, and moviemakers made the rude discovery that contrary to accepted wisdom, Hollywood can be hurt by a recession. Moviegoers did flock to the must-see sequels Terminator 2 and Naked Gun 2 1/2, and — despite its poor reviews — they enjoyed the period pyrotechnics of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But audiences didn’t go back for as many repeat viewings as they have in the past, and they stayed away from movies that were at all marginal.

Overall, the bottom fell out of the summer movie market. Variety analyst A.D. Murphy estimates that the season’s box office take will be $1.7 billion, down more than 8 percent from 1990, and 15 percent from the record summer of 1989. ”This isn’t a recession-proof business,” says Tom Sherak, executive vice president of Twentieth Century Fox. ”Audiences are older and more selective about what they see. The youth audience is still there, but unless it’s a real word-of-mouth picture like Terminator 2, they go on to other things real quickly. We’ve become an event business.”

The tone for the summer just might have been set back in May, when moviegoers shunned Bruce Willis’ $50 million Hudson Hawk. Though June and July were crammed with pictures that did good business — from the return of Bill Murray in What About Bob? to the mighty Terminator 2 — by the dead dog days of August one movie after another failed to register at the box office. ”It’s the recession and bad movies,” says Universal Pictures chairman Thomas Pollock. ”Fewer people can afford to give their kids — or themselves — the extra 50 bucks to go to the movies. They’ll see them on video.”

As usual, many summer pictures were aimed at young males (who can always be counted on to show up on opening weekends), but to be a big winner a movie must pull a wider audience. It took more than action lovers to turn Terminator 2 into a $175.6 million smash. And adults from New York City to Turkey, Tex., helped give City Slickers the longest ”legs” of the summer. By appealing to both blacks and whites, Boyz N the Hood transcended its opening-weekend violence to become the most successful black genre film ever made. And insiders suspect Ron Howard’s fiery Backdraft could have done even better if it had received a PG-13 rating instead of an R. Hollywood Reporter columnist Martin A. Grove believes the picture might have reached $100 million. ”The under-17 audience is a very valuable segment,” he says.

While the successful City Slickers sugarcoated its mid-life angst with plenty of yucks and action, Regarding Henry and The Doctor, both of which boasted workaholic-man-finds-awareness themes, may have been just too grim to have true mass appeal. ”Who wants to spend the summer going to see movies where a man gets shot in the brain and has to recover, and a doctor gets throat cancer?” asks Hollywood Reporter’s Andrea King. ”Where was When Harry Met Sally…? There were virtually no romantic comedies.” The closest thing may have been the Michael J. Fox comedy Doc Hollywood, a movie that has performed well in its first few weeks.

With hindsight, the industry consensus is that among movies aimed at women, the Julia Roberts R-rated drama Dying Young would have fared better with another title (it’s doing fine in Europe as Choice of Love) and a PG-13. And the soap opera spoof Soapdish may actually have alienated fans of the genre (it performed worst in the Southeast, where the soaps reign supreme).

What Hollywood did offer for female appeal this season was the woman warrior: T2‘s well-muscled Linda Hamilton, Kathleen Turner as tough V.I. Warshawski, and the gun-toting outlaws of Thelma & Louise. But Disney’s V.I. Warshawski proved disastrous. And though Thelma & Louise opened with a surprising bang, ultimately it garnered more media attention than dollars. Industry analysts agree that the picture could have been a bigger hit had it been released during a less competitive season.

The summer’s real losers were mostly comedies: Only the Lonely, starring John Candy, and Dutch, featuring Married…With Children‘s Ed O’Neill. Mel Brooks’ Life Stinks and another Candy vehicle, Delirious, cost MGM-Pathé more to market than they returned in ticket sales. And moviegoers quickly tired of such uninspired sequels as Problem Child 2, Return to the Blue Lagoon, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and FX2. ”To get audiences to see a movie,” says Columbia Pictures executive VP Marvin Antonowsky, ”you need a unique premise and someone people want to see. If you have neither, you won’t get anybody in.”

Lastly, the summer was inexplicably light on entertainment for young children. Which may explain why Disney’s rerelease of 101 Dalmatians was the company’s highest-grossing reissue ever.

Word of mouth, not advertising, made the difference this summer, as The Doctor and The Commitments prove. Both films were launched slowly to give reviews and good word a chance to spread, and so far they’re catching on. Twentieth Century Fox’s Sherak, for one, thinks the slow release is the wave of the future. ”We’ve learned” he says, ”we have to let the pictures speak for themselves.”

Monster Sequels:
Terminator 2: Judgment Day, $175.6
The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear, $82.3

Critic-Proof Smash:
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, $146.2

Solid Performers:
Backdraft, $74.8
What About Bob?, $61
Hot Shots!, $47.9
Doc Hollywood, $33.2
Jungle Fever, $31.6
Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, $23.7
Double Impact, $20.1

Sleeper Hits:
City Slickers, $110
101 Dalmatians, $53.3
Boyz N the Hood, $46.9
Thelma & Louise, $41.1

The Rocketeer, $44
Regarding Henry, $36.7
Point Break, $36.4
Soapdish, $35.8
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, $33.8
Dying Young, $32.3
Problem Child 2, $23.2
FX2: The Deadly Art of Illusion, $21
Only the Lonely, $20

Disappointments: Mobsters, $18.1
Switch, $14.8
Pure Luck, $14.7

Fallen Stars: Hudson Hawk, $17.2
V.I. Warshawski, $10.1
Delirious, $4.4
Life Stinks, $3.8
Another You, $2.7

Washouts: Return to the Blue Lagoon, $2.5
Bingo, $6.1
Body Parts, $8.1
Stone Cold $8.5
Dutch, $4.3
Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, $7.3
Mystery Date, $4.2
Kickboxer 2, $1.2
True Identity, $1.5
Defenseless, $1.6
Harley Davidson, $2.2

Jury’s Still Out: The Doctor, $19.4
Dead Again, $3.5
The Commitments, $0.8
Barton Fink, $0.4

All figures in millions
All figures as of Aug. 25

As the season rolls toward its Labor Day close, the to-date box office gross ($1.585 billion) can be attributed almost entirely to 25 releases listed by rank below. The top five blockbusters alone account for more than a third of the take.

1. Terminator 2
2. Robin Hood
3. Naked Gun 2 1/2
4. City Slickers
5. Backdraft
6. What About Bob?
7. 101 Dalmatians
8. Boyz N the Hood
9. Hot Shots!
10. The Rocketeer
11. Thelma & Louise
12. Soapdish
13. Regarding Henry
14. Point Break
15. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
16. Doc Hollywood
17. Dying Young
18. Jungle Fever
19. Don’t Tell Mom
20. Problem Child 2
21. FX2
22. Only the Lonely
23. Double Impact
24. Mobsters
25. Hudson Hawk

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
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