Hollywood jumps the gun on the hottest movie season

For years now, Memorial Day has marked the kickoff to summer-movie season: three jam-packed months of marauding Martians, buff action heroes, and cornea-frying pyrotechnics that account for 40 percent of the industry’s annual ticket sales. But last year Hollywood tried to fool Mother Nature. An eager-to-cash-in Warner Bros. unleashed Twister on May 10, two weeks early, and the tactic worked — the tornado flick sucked up some $241 million. This year, Fox is upping the stakes. If the studio has its way, the summer heat wave will start April 25, when the $95 million Tommy Lee Jones ooze-fest Volcano tries to turn both Old Man Winter and the coast into toast, even though half the country will still be sporting long johns.

Not so fast, say rival studios, which aren’t buying Fox’s creative calendar work. ”Fox can call summer any time they want, but summer isn’t until May,” says Rob Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount’s motion picture group. Adds Mitchell Goldman, New Line president of marketing and distribution, ”School’s not even out yet.”

But the early thaw of ’97 isn’t just about getting a jump on the competition. ”Scheduling movies in the summertime,” says Goldman, ”is often about ego.” There are 15 prized weekends between Memorial and Labor Days. In that time, Hollywood’s eight major studios will roll out more than 45 films, so something’s gotta give. The quick solution: Go early. Now such behemoths as Volcano, Kurt Russell‘s Breakdown, and Bruce WillisThe Fifth Element will be fired up before the hibachi on Memorial Day. Meanwhile, another potential boss of the beach, Alien Resurrection (originally slated to debut on July 25 against Mel Gibson and Julia RobertsConspiracy Theory and Harrison Ford‘s Air Force One), has been bumped to late September. Says Fox marketing president Bob Harper, ”We’d rather put Alien 4 in the fall, where it can open and have a chance to breathe.”

While a couple of juggernauts have competition-free weekends — Steven Spielberg‘s Lost World (May 23) and Batman & Robin (June 20) — those brave enough to stick it out from June through August will square off in showdowns more nerve-racking than the movies themselves. Take June 6, when Speed 2 and Nicolas Cage‘s Con Air both move into the crowded multiplexes. Or, even bloodier, the July 4 weekend, when James Cameron‘s $180 million iceberg epic, Titanic, will attempt to get medieval on Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones’ sci-fi action flick Men in Black.

”I wish we were the only ones releasing movies this summer,” says Jeff Blake, president of Sony Pictures Releasing, of the studio’s chances with Men. ”But what can you do? Last Fourth of July Independence Day had a huge weekend, but people forget, so did Phenomenon.” Paramount, which has Titanic, appears — at least publicly — more confident. ”There are certain 800-pound gorillas that you put anywhere you want,” boasts Friedman. Fair enough. But an impartial third party at another studio says, ”It’s going to be a killer weekend. Both are extremely important franchise pictures, and it’s going to be a bloodbath unless one of them moves away.”

Batman & Robin
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