Movie industry back on track -- Summer blockbusters like ''Jurassic Park'' and ''Free Willy'' raked in millions

By Gregg Kilday
Updated September 10, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Tyrannosaurus rex rampaging through Jurassic Park wasn’t the only dinosaur to spring back to life this summer: The movie industry itself, a wounded behemoth that had suffered box office declines in each of the past three summers, suddenly recovered as well.

”This was one of those [summers] that hits every four or five years,” says industry analyst A.D. Murphy, who predicts that the 1993 Memorial Day through Labor Day box office tally will amount to $2.1 billion, up nearly 5 percent over the season’s record-setter of 1989. Why the good fortune? ”This summer’s films have had a wide appeal,” notes Murphy. ”There’s been a real buffet.”

The items on that groaning board ranged from surprisingly popular delicacies (Much Ado About Nothing, an art film that has grossed an impressive $19.8 million) to hearty main courses: The Firm, In the Line of Fire, Cliffhanger, and the late-season smash The Fugitive. But one selection on the table overshadowed all the rest. Throughout the summer, Jurassic Park shattered one record after another, beginning with the largest opening weekend ever ($50.1 million, beating out Batman Returns‘ $47.7 million). At $311.1 million, Jurassic now stands behind only Star Wars, with $322 million, and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, with $399.8 million, as history’s highest-grossing movie.

Not that the summer didn’t also have its share of flops — most spectacularly, Last Action Hero, which grossed $49.6 million, far short of its reported $80 million budget and grandiose expectations. Instead of duking it out with Jurassic, Hero was handily outpunched by Free Willy, a family film about a whale with cabin fever that has soared past $60 million, proof that a movie that speaks to kids is more powerful than one that merely talks down to them.

Here’s the season’s scorecard:

Winners: Tom Cruise (whose film The Firm is summer’s No. 2 movie with $146.9 million), Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones (their Fugitive will undoubtedly top $150 million), and Clint Eastwood (whose In the Line of Fire will likely be his most successful film ever) all confirmed their star status. But the summer’s comeback kid was Sylvester Stallone, whose Cliffhanger ($80.5 million) marked his return to Olympian heights.

Off screen, two directors vaulted onto the A-list: Nora Ephron, whose Sleepless in Seattle, at $109.2 million, scored as summer’s biggest date movie without resorting to even one sex scene, and Andrew Davis, who became a first-tier action director with The Fugitive after years of yeoman duty with Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal. Twenty-one-year-old twin directors Allen and Albert Hughes claimed the season’s biggest independent hit and some of its best reviews with Menace II Society ($26.9 million), and won a directing deal at Disney. And Universal chairman Thomas Pollock (riding Jurassic to the bank) and TriStar chairman Mike Medavoy (thanks to Cliffhanger and Sleepless) silenced those who’d been whispering that their jobs were on the line.

Losers: When Hero collapsed, Arnold Schwarzenegger lost face, but not financial muscle — he has already signed for a new action comedy, True Lies, at his customary eight-figure fee. Sharon Stone shed some sizzle when the overhyped peep show Sliver took in only $36.2 million. And Michael J. Fox truly stiffed when his Disney comedy Life With Mikey tanked at just $12.3 million, leading Universal to pull another Fox comedy, For Love or Money, from its summer lineup (the film will open Oct. 1). Off screen, Columbia chairman Mark Canton had to endure not only the Hero debacle but also the most withering press attacks since…well, since his last surefire-hit-turned-instant-turkey, The Bonfire of the Vanities.

What’s Love Got to Do With It drew Oscar-level reviews for stars Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne. But, despite its positioning as an adult alternative to the juvenile Hero, the Tina Turner biopic stalled at $37 million, sideswiped by the softer-edged Sleepless in Seattle. What’s Love was still one of the brighter spots in a disappointing summer for Disney, which released nine movies but couldn’t push even one of them over the $40 million mark.

Paramount’s Coneheads, with just $21 million, proved that Wayne’s World lightning does not schwing twice. Although it received raves, the gentle drama Searching for Bobby Fischer has attracted a meager $4.2 million; the film’s mistimed August release may have doomed it to checkmate from the start. After opening in second place, the Friday the 13th film Jason Goes to Hell took the steepest dive of any summer movie, plunging 71 percent and disappearing from the top 10 after one week. Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery drew encouraging reviews, but its pallid grosses seem to be proving that even the old funny Woody doesn’t play well between the coasts. And despite a publicity blitz that saw Mike Myers spending most of his time explaining why the press has been saying such terrible things about him, So I Married an Axe Murderer was a big so-what, failing to crack the top 10 in its first weekend.

Still, with The Fugitive now leading the pack, summer ’93 is going out with a bang. And since Hollywood is jubilant, such success guarantees that two or three summers from now, moviegoers will relive it all as Return to Jurassic Park, Back in the Line of Fire, and Sleeping Together in Seattle make for déjà vu all over again.