1987, and the three box office flops that saw Hollywood question the ‘Spielberg’ formula

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Fantasy family movies? Hollywood was very, very keen to jump off the bandwagon after a difficult time at the box office in 1987.

It’s not the most radical assertion to suggest that Hollywood is cyclical, but there is a sense that no matter how the platforms and studios change, nothing spikes a series of imitators like big successes. We’re seeing it of course in the current climate with superhero movies, with seemingly the Holy Grail of every studio to have at least one comic book franchise of its own. Yet while the clothes were somewhat different, something not dissimilar was going on in the 1980s.

At the start of the 80s, after all, it was the moment that Steven Spielberg movies became box office gold. Sure, Jaws had been a huge hit in the 70s, and Close Encounters a sizeable success. Yet when 1941 spluttered at the end of the decade, there was a question mark as to whether he’d hit his peak.


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Spoiler: he hadn’t. 1981’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and more pertinently 1982’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial went stellar. And in the case of the latter, it’d be that kind of flavoured Spielberg family movie that others would seek to capture. Spielberg included, of course.

Hollywood hadn’t seen numbers of the ilk that E.T. generated at the US box office before (unless you factor in inflation adjustment), and the rush was on to make similar family-friendly fodder. By 1985, a trio of films trying to jump aboard the bandwagon had come along. They each mixed in the core ingredients of teenagers, fantasy and sci-fi – Weird Science, Real Genius and My Science Project – but all three stumbled. Still, the studios persisted, encouraged by the more successful Gremlins, Back To The Future and The Goonies that Spielberg’s Amblin outfit had overseen that arrived in ’85 as well.

As such, lining up for the summer of 1987 were three films of varying sizes, but all trying to capture what Spielberg had seemingly been able to bottle.

At the smaller scale, there was a film called Three O’Clock High (the poster of which is the header for this article). This one actually involved Spielberg too, with Phil Joanou hired to direct the story. It was a film firmly aimed at the teenage market, about a high school boy doing anything he can to avoid a fight with a new transfer student.

With very loose comparisons to Risky Business, the film tonally veered to the point where Spielberg decided to take his name off the credits. When its opening box office weekend was por, Universal quickly cut its losses. It was, as Premiere magazine described back in February 1988, “an indication that Hollywood might be hopping off the teenage bandwagon”.

Tellingly, this was the era when the other king of teen movies, John Hughes, was making a film aimed firmly at an older audience, Planes, Trains & Automobiles and stepping away from high school.

Also stepping up to the metaphorical plate was director Joe Dante. After shepherding Gremlins to box office gold for Spielberg, he teamed up with screenwriter Jeffrey Boam for Amblin’s fantasy adventure Innerspace.

A wildly inventive family movie that very much still holds up, it’s a film whose reputation has grown far beyond its initially disappointing box office returns. Joe Dante argued at the time that the film had been marketed incorrectly. “It was sold as a high-concept fantasy when it was really ‘a character comedy’”, he pointed out, not unreasonably.

Big bucks meanwhile were being pumped into a film that had E.T.’s template through the core of it. Although in this instance, instead of youngsters finding an alien creature, it followed a different alien in the suburbs.

Harry And The Hendersons – or Bigfoot And The Hendersons to us in the UK – cost Universal a notable $10m to make, with Spielberg’s Amblin company involved again. Backed with a sizeable marketing campaign, it’d surprisingly stumble at the box office. Not an outright flop, but most had expected it to do far, far more than the $50m it grossed. Considering E.T. had soared to nearly $400m in America – more than Star Wars – there was a feeling the bubble had very much burst when Bigfoot fell short.

A further Amblin movie in 1987 followed at the end of the year, yet even the brilliant *batteries not included couldn’t reverse the trend.

There was a working theory at the time, too. Steven Spielberg had been focusing on his new television project, Amazing Stories. This has debuted to a surprisingly muted response, and Jeffrey Boam for one argued that it “took some of the luster off Spielberg’s name as a presenter”.

Joe Dante would argue too that Amazing Stories had hurt the box office for Innerspace and Harry And The Hendersons. That people could get their Spielberg-infused fix elsewhere. The fact that the show itself hadn’t gone down as well as hoped hadn’t helped either.

It was around this time too that Spielberg himself had decided he wanted to get away from the day-to-day of Amblin and overseeing other people’s films, bringing in Kathleen Kennedy to take over some of the work he’d been doing.

He would then embark on his first two outright ‘serious’ movies – The Colour Purple and Empire Of The Sun – but tellingly wouldn’t fully return to the family audience he’d carved out until he made his run of Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, Hook and Jurassic Park in alternate years. All starting at the end of the 80s.

Furthermore, Amblin itself had lost a little of its Midas touch. Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the Back To The Future sequels were obvious exceptions, but films such as Joe Versus The Volcano, Arachnophobia and Dad would be liked but struggle to find a big audience.

The conclusion Hollywood drew? “Making films for fifteen year olds is no longer a sure thing”, argued producer David Brown, who’d made Jaws with Spielberg. Quoted in the aforementioned Premiere article, he argued “the audience is definitely graying”, although he had a vested interest there given he was ushering Driving Miss Daisy to the screen at the time.

Of course, it turned out to be swings and roundabouts. For a while, Hollywood thought the teen-targeted movie was washed up, but now of course the teenage audience is at the heart of most box office strategies. It’s not turned to the point where Harry & The Hendersons is getting a big screen reboot. But as the summer of 1987 showed, it only takes a few box office misfires for studios to suddenly jump off a bandwagon they’d otherwise been rather keen to hitch themselves to…

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