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The Great Box-Office Scam

"Jeez, isn't it shocking, how bad 'Goonies' did?"

How bad did it do? I asked.

"Well," said the guy in the movie business, "on Saturday, it did $3,000 at the Esquire. At five bucks a pop, that's 600 people who went to see 'Goonies.' That's not even good for one showing, let alone the whole opening Saturday."

I had to agree. The Esquire is where "Star Wars" had them lined up for weeks on end, waiting to get in. It's where "Superman" pulled big crowds. If "Goonies" was going to make it anywhere, it was going to make it there.

But the shock in the voice of my industry friend was about more than the grosses on "Goonies." It was about the legend of Steven Spielberg, the most successful producer in modern Hollywood, whose golden touch has been so consistent that summer and Spielberg seem to go together at the box office. Was Spielberg losing his franchise?

Starting with his first big summertime hit, "Jaws" in 1975, Spielberg has been responsible for some of the best-selling movies in Hollywood history, all of them summer releases: "E.T. -- The Extra-Terrestrial," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Gremlins," "Poltergeist," "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." (That's in addition to his hits from the other seasons of the year, like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind.")

Now here was "Goonies," a movie about a bunch of kids who find a pirate map and go treasure hunting. Although the movie starts slowly and the kids talk so fast, it's hard to hear them during the first 30 minutes, "Goonies" eventually settles down into a dependable mixture of shocks, thrills and great special effects.

The director of "Goonies" is Richard Donner, whose credits include "Superman" and "Ladyhawke," and who moves the action along efficiently and gets some nice, quiet moments of humor out of his actors. But the formula belongs to Spielberg, who begins with classic Hollywood action formulas, makes everything happen twice as fast, makes it happen to likable, three-dimensional characters, and then embellishes it with state-of-the art special effects.

All of those elements seem to be in place in "Goonies," and yet the movie opened with disappointing ticket sales. Or did it?

"Actually, I'm tickled by the opening weekend grosses," said Rob Friedman, the Warner Bros. vice president who oversaw the movie's opening.

"It did $9.1 million in three days. Is that so bad? 'Rambo' is the biggest hit in the country, and it did about a million more for the same three days. 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' had an $8-million opening weekend. Plus, school is still in session, except in the South. We'll do better when the kids get out of school.

"So I was happy when I came in and saw the figures. Also, we did 'exit interviews' at a lot of theaters, asking people if they liked the film, and on the basis of those, we think we'll get great word-of-mouth. But then my phone started ringing, and people were asking me why the picture did so badly. Compared to what? Compared to 'E.T.' I think the problem Spielberg faces right now is that everybody expects all of his movies to break all-time records on their opening weekends. Isn't anybody satisfied with just an ordinary hit?"

Friedman has a point. Spielberg is now being punished by the same sort of megahit philosophy that his earlier movies helped to spawn. Having set all-time records with movies like "E.T.," he is now expected to set new ones with every film he makes. Later this summer, he has another new production coming out: "Back to the Future," the story of a kid who travels through time to meet his own parents. Will it break "E.T.'s" record? Probably not. But does that matter?

One of the strangest developments in show-biz journalism right now is the emphasis on the box office. Led by USA Today and "Entertainment Tonight," movie reporters are covering the weekend box-office grosses of new movies as if they were a spectator sport. USA Today even extends the coverage to TV, running a weekly chart of the Nielsen ratings so you can see whether your favorite show is popular or not.

"It used to take three weeks before you knew if your movie was a hit," Jamie Lee Curtis was telling me not long ago in Hollywood. "Then after the first week, they knew. Then they knew after a weekend. Now it's getting to the point where if it's not a hit in the sneak previews, they pull the plug on the ad campaign."

Curtis and I were talking before the opening of her new movie, "Perfect," which turned out to be a box-office disappointment. But would "Perfect." with its attractive cast of Curtis and John Travolta, have done slightly better if it hadn't been so quickly reported to be a flop? Possibly.

And what about "Rambo," the summer's monster hit with $70 million already taken in at the box office? It was reported that "Rambo" was doing twice as well as "A View to a Kill," the other big movie that opened on the same day. What that didn't tell you was that the Bond picture was itself setting records - for a Bond. Now the newspapers and television are running learned pieces on the meaning of the "Rambo" phenomenon. There is also perhaps a piece to be written on the resurgence of interest in James Bond - but who wants to write about a second-place finisher?

Last Christmas, 19 movies opened, and one of them, Eddie Murphy's "Beverly Hills Cop" sold one out of every three tickets. There were other good movies in release at the same time ("Micki + Maude," "The Cotton Club," "The Flamingo Kid," "2010"), but they were eclipsed in the Murphy landslide. Fourteen of the 19 Christmas releases lost money their first time around.

Now the movie industry is entering the peak summer release season, and the New York Times reports that 45 major films will open before the end of the season, eight more than last summer. Will some get lost in the shuffle? Will a couple of big hits like "Rambo" or the new Westerns "Pale Rider"" and "Silverado" blow everybody else away? Will Spielberg's "Back to the Future" regain the box-office crown for him?

Frankly, I don't care. I started out in the newspaper business as a sports reporter, and I spent several years keeping score and tallying statistics and caring about who won. When I found my way onto the movie beat, I developed the quaint notion that a movie was a winner if I liked it, and a loser if I didn't. Now the movie beat is beginning to look like a combination of the sports section and the business page.

I had a strange conversation last December. A friend asked me for the name of a good movie. I suggested "The Cotton Club," by Francis Coppola.

"But I heard it cost $45 million!" my friend said. "It's going to lose a fortune!"

So what? I said. As long as it's a good movie and they don't expect you to pay their bills, what difference does it make?

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