And, perhaps most important, it was the summer when movies were bigger than ever, but big movies were not quite plentiful enough.
A recent front-page story in Variety, the show-biz trade newspaper, underscored how important box-office blockbusters are for the financial health of the movie industry. During the opening weeks of summer '96, as studios tripped over one another to release such massive hits as Twister, Mission: Impossible, The Rock and Independence Day, joy reigned supreme in the offices of theater-chain executives. It was too good to last. And it didn't.
The problem is, Hollywood majors front-loaded their schedules this year, figuring moviegoers would be too distracted by Olympics coverage to pay much attention to action at the multiplexes. And so, by the time Bob Costas started to wax poetic in prime time, the really big guns had already been fired. Meanwhile, gloomy exhibitors were left to tally the meager grosses for such lightweight fare as Kingpin, Joe's Apartment and The Adventures of Pinocchio.
It's a chicken-or-egg question: did moviegoers decide to stay home because there was nothing to lure them into theaters, or could nothing lure them into theaters because moviegoers had decided to stay home? Whatever the reason, the sharp audience drop-off during the second half of the summer came as a nasty shock to theater owners and operators. And the shock was all the nastier because it came at a time when chains such as AMC, Cineplex-Odeon and Cinemark have embarked on massive expansion programs, with literally hundreds of additional theaters either newly opened or under construction.
As Variety noted, none of these new theaters will house fewer than 12 screens. According to industry analyst Leonard Klady, "Exhibitors say big multiplexes require two or three blockbusters at all times [my italics, not Klady's] because those event movies act as magnets to draw audiences into smaller films -- much as shopping malls need large department stores as anchor tenants."
Which is a roundabout way of saying that next summer, you will see many, many more blockbusters, spread more evenly through the season. That's the only way multiplexes can afford to show riskier and quirkier movies such as Lone Star, Trainspotting and She's the One. If, indeed, there still is room for such fare in multiplexes.
Some other lessons to be learned, portents to be gleaned and memories to be savored from the summer of '96:
Don't Call Us, Mr. Stallone, We'll Call You: Helen Hunt plays a lead role on a top-rated TV series (Mad About You), and Jeff Goldblum co-starred in one of the highest-grossing movies ever made (Jurassic Park). Even so, it's doubtful that anyone, even their parents, ever thought of them as blazing superstars. But that may have changed during the summer of '96, when Hunt shared the screen with Bill Paxton and several mean-looking storms in Twister, while Goldblum helped Will Smith and Bill Pullman save the world in Independence Day.
A great deal has been written about the conspicuous absence of A-list actors in both box-office blockbusters. The conventional wisdom is that in both cases, the spectacle, not the stars, brought audiences into theaters. Actually, I think Will Smith's sassy, star-making performance in Independence Day counted for a sizable hunk of ticket sales, but never mind. In Hollywood, conventional wisdom, however dubious, is regarded as divine inspiration. So you can rest assured that during the next two summers, we will be up to our necks in big-bang extravaganzas featuring such B- and C-list luminaries as Pierce Brosnan (Dante's Peak), Tommy Lee Jones (Volcano), Treat Williams (Deep Rising) and Michael Ironside (Starship Troopers).
Falling Stars: Demi Moore received more money than you can shake a stick at, plus the stick, for starring in Striptease. Jim Carrey brought home an even bigger paycheck for playing the title role in The Cable Guy. Film critics, a notoriously ill-paid group, did not look kindly on this excess.
Indeed, when you read many of the scathing reviews for Striptease and Cable Guy, it's hard to tell what is being reviewed -- the movie itself, or the salary of the star. Critics, like most other moviegoers, have become unduly obsessed with the business of show business. (Just a few years ago, it was unheard-of for mainstream newspapers to run reports on movie grosses. These days, readers are likely to object if such information is not printed in a timely fashion.) As a result, a great deal of attention is paid to the high price of "bankable" talent. And when a superstar does stumble -- or, to be more precise, is perceived as stumbling -- many critics and commentators are unable to disguise their glee while describing this reversal of fortune.
It's worth noting, however, that by mid-August, Striptease had posted a cumulative (i.e., domestic and foreign) gross of $44.3 million, while The Cable Guy racked up $80 million. Both movies are, at best, deeply flawed efforts. But they were not the nose-burning stinkers that some would have you believe. And despite all reports to the contrary, they did not empty theaters more quickly than someone yelling fire. So don't expect to see either Moore or Carrey in the unemployment line anytime soon.
Hits and Misses: Despite glowing reviews and great word of mouth, John Sayles' terrific Lone Star has not yet managed to emerge from the art-house ghetto. To date, it has grossed $8 million -- a tidy sum when compared to other Sayles movies, but a pittance when set against ticket sales for more conventional releases. By comparison, Harriet the Spy, a movie deemed a box-office disappointment, has made $25.7 million, while Flipper -- also known as Flopper -- has a $30 million worldwide gross to its credit. (Both of these family-oriented movies should make even bigger bucks on home video.) Maybe a few Oscar nominations will elevate the visibility of Sayles' masterwork. By the time the nominations are announced, however, Lone Star likely will be playing at a video store near you.
Other notable summer releases that failed to attract the audiences they deserved: Dragonheart, Multiplicity, Matilda and The Phantom. On the art-house circuit, the cuddly Walking and Talking has been a box-office fizzle, and even Robert Altman's Kansas City has opened to general indifference. Maybe what these movies needed was a tornado or two. Or, at the very least, a flying saucer the size of Cleveland. Independence Day is a great deal of fun, and even Twister can be enjoyed as a wild roller coaster ride. But I would hate to think that, next summer, we will see nothing but natural disasters and alien invaders at our friendly neighborhood multiplexes.
Signs of Intelligent Life: A Time to Kill is making money. So is Tin Cup. By art-house standards, the audacious Trainspotting is a modest hit. Eddie Murphy revealed a comic genius undiminished by recent box-office humiliations in The Nutty Professor. Denzel Washington made an early bid for Oscar gold with Courage Under Fire. Gwyneth Paltrow proved she's worth the hype in Emma. And a ridiculously young Alain Delon managed to chill and charm with equal ease in the re-issue of Purple Noon. Meanwhile, audiences firmly rejected House Arrest, Bordello of Blood, Chain Reaction and a dozen or so other disasters too painful to remember. So, see: the news isn't all bad. Maybe it was a swell summer after all.