Box office bog down -- Even stars like Robin Williams, Danny DeVito, and Michelle Pfeiffer can't save this autumn's dismal movie returns

Has the Hollywood dream factory run out of steam? All the signs seem to say yes, because based on what’s happening this fall, the movie industry’s usual reliance on assembly-line commercial formulas is being seriously challenged by bad box office returns. The hotly anticipated Frankie & Johnny, starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, was a stinging defeat for Paramount, which had confidently opened the film on 1,150 screens. ”It was a big disappointment,” admits Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen. The Clarence Thomas Senate hearings helped hold the movie’s opening-weekend grosses down to $4.3 million. Mixed reviews were a further blow, and the film’s total take in its first three weeks was only $13.1 million.

Other brand name fall disappointments include Other People’s Money with Danny DeVito, Deceived with Goldie Hawn, Paradise with Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, and The Butcher’s Wife with Demi Moore, which in its opening weekend grossed a paltry $2.4 million on 800 screens. Even The Fisher King with Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, which actually captured the No. 1 spot three weeks running, has taken in a relatively modest $31 million in six weeks and is expected just barely to cover its production costs.

Behind the box office slide is a deadly combination of tight money and marginal movies. When audiences don’t have much cash to spend, so-so films don’t make it. ”There was a more forgiving time in the marketplace when mediocre movies would do business,” says Jim Jacks, Universal’s senior vice president of production. ”Right now, they aren’t working.”

Strangely — or perhaps not so strangely — some people in Hollywood take this predicament as a good sign. ”There’s nothing like a depression,” says industry analyst A.D. Murphy, ”to get production companies focused on the primary business of getting quality on film.” Murphy maintains that studios grow complacent in good times and green-light more iffy films than usual, producing a glut of weak movies. Then studios wise up and become more cautious. Fewer and better movies result.

But while we wait for the studios to complete their glut cycles, smaller fish, like the independent New Line Cinema, are teaching the beached whales some new tricks. Known for such inexpensive, expertly marketed movies as the recent Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (cost: $10 million; gross to date: $33 million), My Own Private Idaho (currently cleaning up on 75 screens), and Rambling Rose (holding well), New Line just opened House Party 2 in the No. 1 slot with a gross of $7.3 million in its first five days, a figure that would look respectable even in better times. Making small pictures for large audiences: not a bad success formula for the ’90s.