1991, and the box office meltdown that spooked Hollywood

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A drop in takings for Hollywood’s big 1991 blockbusters set alarm bells ringing at movie studios -in spite of big hits such as Terminator 2 and Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves.


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The story here starts in a good place: the UK box office was having a rather good summer all the way back in 1991. It was something of a marked contrast to how things were faring in the US at the time, but the delayed British release of The Silence Of The Lambs – landing perfectly in sync with its Oscar run – had made it the biggest the film of the UK summer season.

Based on numbers from the end of May through to the end of August, the Best Picture winner was comfortably the top film at the UK box office, beating off serious competition from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kevin Costner.

This was though the era of staggered release dates across the globe, where moviegoers outside of America often found themselves waiting weeks, months, even a year for a movie to make it to their shores. In the case of The Silence Of The Lambs, the film had already enjoyed the bulk of its US run, and was left mopping up a few dollars by the time that year’s big blockbusters came around. It was still pretty much out of the way by the time Hollywood studios started unleashing their big guns for the summer of 1991, a season where hopes were high.

And why wouldn’t they be? In 1989, Hollywood had enjoyed a record summer. Sure, 1989’s Batman was at the forefront of the $1.8bn of tickets sold in just three months, but four other films cleared $100m at the box office that summer – a high bar at the time – including Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade and surprise smash Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. Dead Poets Society also sat at $95m, a sleeper success few had seen coming. Everywhere you went, studios were awash with more cash than they were used to.

Inevitably, 1990’s summer takings couldn’t quite measure up to the records set in ’89, but whilst the likes of Dick Tracy and Days Of Thunder didn’t hit expected commercial heights, films such as Ghost, Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder still performed.

Expectations were high going into 1991’s season, then. After all, Arnold Schwarzenegger was headlining Terminator 2: Judgment Day, following the success of the previous year’s aforementioned Total Recall. Sure, the original The Terminator hadn’t gone nuclear at the box office, but its reputation had soared, and it seemed a calculated gamble to make the follow up the most expensive film in the world. A famous teaser trailer was already whetting appetites many months in advance.

Then, Kevin Costner – who’d snagged a bunch of Oscars at the 1991 Academy Awards for Dances With Wolves – was spearheading Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. There was a feeling that Christian Slater might fully break through too at the head of Mobsters, whilst Bruce Willis was following up his Die Hard sequel success with another action-centric picture, Hudson Hawk. Disney was banking on The Rocketeer – a cheaper gamble than 1990’s Dick Tracy – and there were hopes that Ron Howard’s firefighter ensemble drama Backdraft was packing enough star power to help make it a hit.

Yet the fact that this piece is being written over 30 years on would rightly lead you to conclude that things did not go to plan. I’ve talked about the summer of 1991 a few times over the years, but it felt like a bit of a moment in Hollywood circles, and certainly spooked the studios.

Still, heading into the once-traditional starting gate for summer blockbuster season – Memorial Day in the US, at the end of May – there were early champagne corks popping at Disney. Its modestly-budgeted comedy What About Bob?, starring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss, had opened well in mid-May, on its way to a $63m US haul. What few could have foretold though was that it’d be the sixth most successful release of the season.

Come that Memorial Day weekend – celebrated from May 24th to May 27th 1991 – the first wave of big guns were lining up. Backdraft, Hudson Hawk, Thelma & Louise and the John Candy-headlined comedy Only The Lonely were all scheduled. It would prove to be a disastrous start to a three month period that featured – as the Los Angeles Times reported – a “flock of flops”.

Its piece noted that the majority of the films had been greenlit at the end of 1989, when box office fortunes were sky high, and studio bank balances were healthy. The problem the studios faced now was that films – not just Terminator 2 – were getting much more expensive to make and fast, with profit margins squeezed. Just to stand still, financially, the movies needed to make more money.

Thus, Universal should really have been pleased that Backdraft opened that Memorial Day long weekend with $15m. Yet it hadn’t been a cheap film to make, and the aforementioned What About Bob? had helped itself to a further $11m over the same four days. Commercial expectations for Thelma & Louise weren’t sky high, and its reputation was swiftly cemented and has endured. Still, its $6.1m opening take wasn’t getting headlines written. Nor was the modest return for Only The Lonely, at just shy of $6m.

No, the headlines were being saved for Hudson Hawk. A film that was expected to be a huge summer hit was very quickly downgraded to one of the most notorious box office failures of the era.

Hudson Hawk

1991’s Hudson Hawk

Already, the trade press in the build-up to Hudson Hawk's release had been salivating anyway over stories of Bruce Willis’ influence over the project (Richard E Grant’s terrific book, With Nails, hints at some of this). He’d conceived the film, and it’s the only movie in his career he takes a writing credit on. Reuniting him with his Die Hard 2 producer Joel Silver, it was widely expected to be one of the year’s biggest movies. Yet it wasn’t.

I’m the person who quite likes Hudson Hawk, but that was not a majority view in 1991. The film had a target painted on its back by the time it came to cinemas, and the target was duly hit many times over. Empire’s box office summer round up in its November 1991 issue called it the ”turkey of the year”, and few were disagreeing. Costing $65m to make, it had a catastrophically low $7m opening weekend, and never recovered. $17m in total was banked in the States, making it the 77th highest grossing film of the year. It was comfortably one of the most expensive.

Things had thus got off to an auspicious start, and unusually, heading into June, summer blockbuster season 1991 was still lacking a genuinely big hit. The shadow of Batman becoming the first film to open with over $40m was being cast over the blockbusters that followed, and it was a level they couldn’t reach.

Salvation eventually came in the middle of June. By that stage, the Billy Crystal-headlined City Slickers had opened above expectations, and I’m coming back to that. But there was a collective sigh of relief around town when Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves rode into US cinemas on June 14th, on its way to a $25.6m opening weekend. The relief was short-lived, as two more fancied films spluttered the weekend after: the Julia Roberts-headlined Dying Young and Disney’s charming The Rocketeer. Neither mustered $10m in their opening sessions. Meanwhile, it’d taken a month for Backdraft to get to $50m.

What stopped summer 1991 for being an outright disaster for Hollywood though was its middle few weeks. Robin Hood was holding its place, and audiences were still flocking to it weeks afterward. Paramount’s first Naked Gun sequel meanwhile – The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell Of Fear – opened with $20m on its way to a very profitable $86m.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

But it was the July 4th weekend that proved the high point. Again, while not hitting Batman levels, Terminator 2: Judgment Day very much delivered, and cemented Arnold Schwarzenegger as the biggest movie star in the world. It opened with $31m, and its way to over $200m in the US alone, and it’d just take another hit or two, and the broader summer season was saved. Phew.

The back end of summer though was, well, ‘not good’.

Harrison Ford-headlined drama Regarding Henry didn’t even open in the top five in its first weekend, but even that was a better fate than befell Disney’s planned franchise opener, V I Warshawski. Starring Kathleen Turner, that one didn’t even break the top ten. The Christian Slater-driven mob drama Mobsters did get further, rising to number two in the charts. But with just $6m banked on weekend one, it wasn’t going to be the head turner that some had predicted. In fact, its overall gross would be side by side with Hudson Hawk’s. The predicted sleeper hit of the summer had, well, slept.

Of particular worry to Hollywood executives – and a foretelling of how big movies and their launches was about to go – was the growing trend for a release to have a decent opening weekend, then sink fast the following week. We’re in an era of blockbusters now where a second weekend drop off in business of 50% is regarded as pretty decent. But in 1991, there was more a belief and expectation that a film had a good few weeks to attract an audience. Arguably, it was the summer when that expectation began to turn.

But also, it’s worth noting there were significant green shoots. City Slickers was one of them, a modestly-costed comedy that ran for weeks off pure word of mouth in the US. By the time the summer was over, it was the third biggest film of the season, with over $110m banked (and a memorable Oscar in its future). Mind you, it meant the top three films had grabbed a then-unprecedented 27% of the available business.

Comedy spoof Hot Shots! offered a late season spark of life as well, but it was debutant director John Singleton who became the talk of the summer. The much-missed filmmaker broke onto the scene with the incredible Boyz In The Hood, made in his early 20s. Its gross of nearly $50m saw it sneak into the summer top ten in the States, on its way to Oscar nominations too.

Still, it was a bit of a gloss on a difficult time.

By the time the summer wrapped up, takings were down 11% on the year before, and comparisons were being drawn with what was regarded as the “last abysmal summer” that Hollywood had sat through, all the way back in 1971. Granted, that was the summer that brought movies such as Klute (love that film) and Steve McQueen in Le Mans, but commercially, it was not a good one. Nor was 1991. A raft of films commissioned in the aftermath of 1989’s numbers hadn’t delivered, and 1992’s summer wouldn’t turn things around either. Could the ever-reliable summer blockbuster season no longer be that?

Well, as it turned out, it’d be 1993 that rode to the rescue – but that’s a tale for another time…

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