1996's flood of mediocre movies requires a different outlook to gain success

By Anne Thompson
Updated May 17, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

With more than 100 movies opening in the first four months of 1996, most of Hollywood’s major releases had just a weekend or two in which to sink or swim, and that glug-glug-glug you hear coming from theaters suggests that most of them could have used some breathing lessons. Every Friday, four or five new movies dove into the marketplace and drowned; last weekend alone new offerings from Sharon Stone and David Schwimmer tanked, and even Pamela Anderson Lee couldn’t stay afloat. Meanwhile, budgets soared — an average studio film now costs $54 million to make and market — and movies fell off screens at an alarming rate. ”Aggregately, business is up,” says Mark Gill, marketing head for Miramax, which, by having more than a dozen films in release, enjoyed a record first quarter even without generating one bona fide hit. ”But everybody’s getting a smaller piece of the pie.” Here are the new rules of the game as played by the few films able to keep their heads above water.

— Don’t bore audiences with something they’ve already seen. Put Sandra Bullock in last year’s Cinderella romance While You Were Sleeping, and you get a hit. Stick Ricki Lake in virtually the same movie, Mrs. Winterbourne, and nobody goes. With so much to choose from, moviegoers shunned familiar-looking retreads, passing on Jean-Claude Van Damme as yet another kickboxer (The Quest); Pauly Shore as yet another idiot (Bio-Dome); Alec Baldwin as yet another silky villain (The Juror), and Sharon Stone, as two too many bad girls (in her March release, Diabolique, and now in Last Dance, the final gross of which is unlikely even to cover her $7 million salary).

— More than ever, grown-ups count. What worked this spring were surprises that had some appeal to the over-25 set: John Travolta as a psychotic menace in Broken Arrow; Richard Dreyfuss as a high school teacher in Mr. Holland’s Opus; and Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple confronting their Republican in-laws-to-be in The Birdcage, which, bolstered by a strong marketing campaign that sold the movie as an unthreatening comedy, is on its way to becoming the biggest spring hit since 1990’s Pretty Woman. Glowing reviews pushed cinephiles to sample two small-scale satires, the Coen brothers’ frozen Minnesota mystery Fargo (their biggest hit since Raising Arizona) and David O. Russell’s scabrous Flirting With Disaster. And when New Line picked up TV star Martin Lawrence’s edgy take on the war between the sexes, A Thin Line Between Love & Hate, from the defunct Savoy, the studio effectively sold it as a hip-hop Fatal Attraction. It worked: The movie succeeded by reaching black adults as well as teens and bucked a trend that should terrify every movie studio….

— …TV stars don’t sell movie tickets. Ellen DeGeneres, Kelsey Grammer, Scott Wolf, Jason Alexander, Rhea Perlman, and all of the Kids in the Hall — this means you. Even George Clooney’s big-screen effort From Dusk Till Dawn faded fast after a strong opening. Given that spring’s most successful TV-to-movies leap was made by Kermit the Frog, series stars might do well to spend their summer hiatuses in good supporting roles: NewsRadio‘s Maura Tierney, Homicide‘s Andre Braugher, and Frasier‘s John Mahoney all got decent exposure in Richard Gere’s surprise hit, Primal Fear, without having to carry the film.