The Hollywood box office bonfire of 1990

The Hollywood sign
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After a stellar 1989, the Hollywood box office of 1990 was expected to be even better – but the film industry got taught some tough lessons.

Browsing the worldwide box office charts for 1989, and many a major studio executive would have been stroking their chin with some degree of comfort. The same old was working. The new things were working. Everything was getting better. The Christmas party was clearly going to be on the impressive side.

What 1989 had proven, after all, was the growing feeling that big stuff worked too. Tim Burton’s Batman had firmly introduced the idea of the huge opening weekend at the box office, and that a movie could become a cultural phenomenon. That patrons would leave the cinema and promptly seek out the soundtrack, the computer game, the book, the T-shirt, the novelty undercrackers.

But it wasn’t just Batman. 1989 proved to Hollywood that, for the most part, the formula was on fire. Sequels such as Lethal Weapon 2, Back To The Future Part II and Ghostbusters II took pride of place in the end of year top ten. Modestly-costed family fare such as Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and The Little Mermaid were raking in the dollars. And there was room for a surprise or two as well, as witnessed by the princely returns for Look Who’s Talking and Parenthood.

Just as they sipped their beverage and congratulated themselves, these same executives could thus turn to 1990 with some comfort. If the formula worked in 1989, then it was bound to repeat in 1990. And look at the films! Big sequels to films such as RoboCop, Die Hard, RockyGremlins, The Godfather and 48 Hrs. A potential new Batman in the form of Dick Tracy. That, and a few star vehicles too, with Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger (twice), Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis firmly back in business.

What could go wrong?

Well, in the early stages, not much. Hollywood got some very welcome surprises early in the year, when a pair of movies released in the generally off-peak month of March made a major impact. With The Hunt For Red October – starring Sean Connery (who joined the film at very late notice) and Alec Baldwin – already proving the first hit of the year, the arrival of Pretty Woman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before Easter both turned heads. The former marked the coronation of Julia Roberts as a new movie star, the latter, rejected by every major studio in town, became the biggest independent film of all time.

What industry onlookers didn’t appreciate though was that two of the biggest films of the year had already been released by the end of March, and that audiences were about to wrongfoot them time and time again by the time 1990 drew to a close.

Back To The Future Part III
Back To The Future Part III

The first clues arose in May.

1989 had been a terrific year for the late Robin Williams, as his starring role in Dead Poets Society fuelled a breakout success, and earned him awards nominations too. Yet his next project, the supposedly broad comedy Cadillac Man, fell into the box office doldrums at speed. Released the same day, the theoretically high-powered pairing of Goldie Hawn and Mel Gibson pretty much followed it. Then, when Back To The Future Part III – a film that had, you might recall, been heavily teased at the end of the second movie – fell slightly below expectations, minor alarm bells were ringing. This isn’t how things were supposed to pan out.

By the end of June, those alarm bells were clanging at some volume, leading to one of the most infamous memos in Hollywood history.

The upside first: Arnold Schwarzenegger cemented his place as the biggest action star on the planet with one of his best films, Paul Verhoeven’s very violent, very 18-rated Total Recall. This one delivered, both with audiences and bean counters. For Hollywood, the slight sting was that this was again an independent film, paid for by the money-nearly-no-object operation that was Carolco, which by this time was already pumping funds into the following year’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

For the rest of the month, big movie after big movie failed to come anywhere near the level of commercial expectations that had been predicted.

The reunion of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in Another 48 Hrs fell quickly, a sloppy sequel that suggested Murphy’s box office powers were waning at some speed (they wouldn’t return until the hit comedy The Nutty Professor many years later).

June 15th in America then saw the battle between Dick Tracy, Disney’s most ambitiously expensive blockbuster of all time at that point, and Gremins 2: The New Batch, a film which Warner Bros had struggled so long to make it eventually went back to original director Joe Dante and gave him pretty much carte blanche.

dick tracy
Dick Tracy

Both films in this instance are good, in the case of Gremlins 2, even more than that. You may agree or disagree with that, but what’s less arguable is the box office dust the pair left behind. The scheduling of two of the summer’s biggest movies on the same day is an easy decision in hindsight to look back on with some degree of despair, but that was the given plan, and it had consequences. Each film commercially suffered from being arranged into a head-on clash.

Dick Tracy too evidently wasn’t the Batman-sized cultural event that Disney was banking on, and whilst it cleared $100m at the US box office (at a time when that was a lot less expected), its profits were slim. As for Gremlins 2, its failure still stings: an ambitious, anarchic comedy sequel that ripped up the formula and earned its reputation over time, rather than in the moment.

The following week, RoboCop 2 stomped into cinemas, carrying the hopes of Orion Pictures as it did so. Orion – an indie that had scored considerable success over the preceding decade – was in deep financial trouble, and it needed its Robo follow-up to help keep the company going.

Unfortunately, whilst RoboCop 2 was clearly bigger, more expensive and more anticipated than the surprise original classic, it’d lost its edge. The future of law enforcement did little to calm Orion’s woes, and within a year, the studio had had to sell the then-in-production The Addams Family film to try and keep going (The Addams Family would be a generous hit for Paramount Pictures at the end of 1991).

Even Tom Cruise couldn’t turn the doom and gloom around. Days Of Thunder wasn’t the Top Gun sequel that he’d been expected to make, but it was the next best thing: a reunion of its creatives. Cruise starred, Tony Scott was back directing, powerhouse producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were expected to bring their magic touch. Yet whilst no flop, Days Of Thunder was and is messy. The production stories of the film, of non-stop parties and late changes, turned out to be far more interesting than what was put on screen. Tragically, even the tagline ‘Cruise Like Thunder’ couldn’t turn things around.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder

Things improved slightly as the summer went on. Die Hard 2: Die Harder (pictured) had become Hollywood trade fodder for its $75m budget, the kind of sum that onlookers failed to see could in any way lead to anything profitable. A $100m+ gross in the US helped of course, but 20th Century Fox would have to wait some time to get its money back.

Disney’s much-fancied Arachnophobia, still a hugely entertaining film, found itself well reviewed, but missed a blind spot: it was a film for people who were terrified of spiders, but people who were terrified of spiders had no intention of, well, watching a film all about spiders.

Charlie Sheen-headlined Navy SEALs came and went after stories of production unrest, and in the end it was telling that when Hollywood moved away from its big action films that it enjoyed its bigger successes in 1990. The late summer courtroom drama Presumed Innocent, for instance, led to a deep exhaling of relief for Warner Bros when it ignited in cinemas, even as films such as Air America and the Emilio Estevez-directed Men At Work were falling elsewhere for other studios.


A lot more misses than hits then, and a real contrast to the party time of 1989. Yet it’d be remiss to say that 1990 was a year of box office doom and gloom. No, instead, it turned into a year of change, where Hollywood would enjoy some of its biggest hits of the decade. It’s just that few saw them coming, and the top three grossing movies of the year were on nobody’s predictions list just a few months earlier.

The first broke through in the summer, but would take its time earning its cash.

Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg, hadn’t been the easiest of productions, but it turned out to be very much the right movie, sold in the right way, at just the right time. Audiences, exhausted by the growth of big, big films, were instead offered what became a word-of-mouth sensation: a witty, charming love story that would launch in July, and still be playing in cinemas at the end of the year.

It was as if it’d picked up the baton from Pretty Woman, that had been enjoying a similar style of success just months earlier, and taken it forward. All of a sudden, scripts for love stories and romantic comedies that otherwise couldn’t be read were at the top of the pile (for Julia Roberts incidentally, it helped too that she was part of the ensemble for a late summer breakout, the original Flatliners).

Then there was Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, a film – ironically – he’d turned down The Hunt For Red October to make. This was a full-on career gamble, and one that trade reporters had mostly enjoyed lampooning. A fast-rising movie star, turning down lead roles, to instead go and direct a three-hour western, a third of which would be subtitled? Madness. Seven Oscars later, and nearly $200m in American takings, and Costner very much had the last laugh.

The real surprise though was a film that Warner Bros had famously rejected: Home Alone. A production that unexpectedly made a movie star (again, as Pretty Woman had done) rather than a feature that initially required one. Home Alone was the rare kind of lightning in a bottle sensation that Hollywood wished it knew how to make more of, and it spent a large part of the following decade trying to do so. Who could have called, at the end of a year where Hollywood studios had been writing their biggest-ever cheques for star salaries, that it’d be a ten-year old supporting actor from Uncle Buck that’d leave Schwarzenegger, Gibson, Cruise et al in the shade?

Home Alone

The aftermath of all of this would be another difficult year for studios, with 1991’s summer movies in particular still very much a holdover of the old ways of doing things. The two-to-three-year lead time for films meant things couldn’t be changed much quicker, and Hollywood was stuck with older decisions as it held on through a bumpy following year.

Yet many of the turning points of 1990s cinema can be marked back to what happened at the start of the decade. The growth of independent cinema, for instance, and the ripping up of the rulebook that said only major studios could have nine figure hits (the decade would end with The Blair Witch Project, further cementing this). The mixed dependence on sequels. The changing of the movie star model.

And also, the ongoing cementing of one of Hollywood’s favourite mantras: nobody knows anything. When the late screenwriter, the legendary William Goldman, penned that in his book Adventures In The Screen Trade he couldn’t have known just what an omnipresent line it’d become, arguably the most famous he ever wrote outside of his screenplays. Yet as 1990’s box office demonstrated: it’s absolutely true…

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