Extinction threatens Hollywood dinosaurs: As the summer box-office battle gathers pace, the big studios bank on a high-tech future. Larry Black reports

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The Independent Online
BY NOW, most of the world knows the basic plot. This summer's main attraction is about an entertainment impresario who gets very good at cloning old life forms and exploits them in a lavish theme park, with unprecedented licensing and tie-in potential.

It's an artifical environment that relies too heavily on high technology and computers, and hopes to create a whole new form of entertainment employing the sexiest aspects of the digital communications revolution, like virtual reality, multi-media and interactive video gadgets. And it's about rivals resorting to nefarious - and ultimately suicidal - tactics in an effort to keep up with this expensive spectacle.

Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park and the screenwriter of its blockbuster movie adaptation, may have created a box office monster, but he has also scripted a neat parable about Hollywood itself: despite the efforts of science and merchandising, are the big studios - whose budgets grow ever more colossal as their surroundings become more inhospitable - really creatures of another age?

Can Hollywood's new- found fascination with interactive multi-media and high- tech marketing synergies really reverse extinction? And can the big international media conglomerates, like Jurassic Park's own version of Walt Disney, the obsessive John Hammond, really play God?

Universal's runaway hit - which grossed an astounding dollars 171m ( pounds 114m) in its first 17 days on release in the US - and the rest of this summer's line-up of expensive new releases illustrate their dilemma. Sixty new films will fight for space on the silver screen in the next two months, a third more than last year. How they perform is crucial because no less than 40 per cent of US box office revenues each year are tradionally generated during the three and a half months of summer. The new films feature just about every big draw in Hollywood's stable of talent: Jurassic Park is directed by Steven Spielberg (responsible for the record- holding ET), while rival blockbusters star Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Last Action Hero), Sylvester Stallone (Cliffhanger), Sean Connery (Rising Sun), Clint Eastwood (Line of Fire), Sharon Stone (Sliver), Tom Cruise (The Firm), Harrison Ford (The Fugitive) and Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle).

Each will have cost a good deal more than the dollars 28.8m spent last year on the average film - the only way, the studios argue, to cut through the clutter and establish the mega-hit returns they need to survive. But ticket sales, for most of them, will not cover the cost. So-called 'second- tier' films, with more moderate budgets, have far less chance of success.

And with the crush of new releases, even successful films with legs such as Jurassic Park are unlikely to remain in first- run cinemas for more than 20 weeks, if the last mega-hit, Batman, is any guide. A decade ago, ET stayed more than a year.

With Hollywood's most important audience - teenage boys and young men, who see about a dozen 'action' releases a year - shrinking as a proportion of the North American population, these economics amount to high- stakes gambling.

They also mean that the studios, once they have an established hit, are least nervous when they are spinning off sequels, reproducing new generations of comic-book heroes - the way Crichton's geneticists replicate velociraptor embryos - with similar long- term results.

Ticket sales have declined in six of the past eight years, and now represent only about a third of a film's total revenue - less than its eventual video cassette sales.

The result is that for every Jurassic Park, projected to gross dollars 245m for Universal's parent, Matsushita Corp, there is a Last Action Hero - this summer's dollars 120m offering from Hollywood's other Japanese-owned studio, Sony's Columbia, which some say may lose dollars 80m - and at least a half-dozen more 'dogs'. Paramount's Sliver will make half its dollars 75m estimate; Fox's Hot Shots II is coming a cropper, and TriStar's Cliffhanger has turned in a lacklustre performance after four weeks.

Only two Hollywood studios, Disney and Time Warner's Warner Brothers, are believed to have posted an overall profit from film-making in the first quarter of this year, and only one or two more - including Universal - will join them in making money on the year, Wall Street analysts predict.

'The real prehistoric battle this summer is between Matsushita and Sony,' argues one entertainment industry analyst in New York. 'They're the ones going at it like Godzilla and King Kong.'

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way, and some of the world's largest media, electronics and telecommunications, are still betting billions that in the long run - with the promise of 500 high-definition TV channels and video- on-demand - it won't.

Not only the Japanese have spent fortunes on elusive synergies not much farther- fetched than those of Jurassic Park's Hammond; on the strength of the value of Hollywood's cultural 'software', Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and Time Warner went deep into debt in the 1980s, and now US telecoms giants and computer firms such as US West, AT&T and TCI seem ready to follow suit.

And Disney, the original entertainment synergist, not only continues to expand its theme parks but also plans to buy a chain of private schools in the US, hoping to cross- market its children's entertainment and pseudo-science theme parks with education.

The big entertainment companies clearly believe that film and television production will be at the centre of a programming-driven media revolution.

Silicon Valley gurus like Microsoft's Bill Gates, Apple's John Sculley and the engineers of Silicon Graphics Corp have become regular Hollywood fixtures as the studios struggle to understand the 'new media' that will emerge as a result of the convergence of TV, computers and wireless communications.

Technological pioneers such as James Cameron of Terminator fame, and George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars who now runs Industrial Light & Magic, a special effects house, are among Hollywood's new moguls.

The technology on display in Jurassic Park - interactive media players in the park-tour vehicles, virtual-reality goggles used in dinosaur-cloning - reflect Hollywood's new obsessions. But Jurassic Park should also let Universal prove its worth to Matsushita, which paid a staggering dollars 6.6bn for the studio in 1990.

The film cleverly parodies theme parks and mocks greedy Hollywood merchandising; there are images everywhere of Jurassic Park lunchboxes, vacuum flask bottles and T-shirts with the park's Tyrannosaurus Rex logo.

But those same products are now ubiquitous in retail stores and fast-food outlets across North America, and replicas of the park gates in the film have already gone up at Universal Studios, teasers for a dollars 70m Jurassic Park water ride that could be running in Florida in two years. The film is also expected to spawn a Saturday morning television cartoon series.

In Japan, toyshops have passed out more than 10 million Jurassic Park battery testers. There's also a Japanese scratch- and-win game that awards Jurassic Park caps and other merchandise.

But Jurassic Park synergies go further, tapping directly into the technological future Hollywood foresees. Jurassic Park is the key to the launch of a new digital, interactive home-entertainment system developed by the California company 3DO. Matsushita, which has a large investment stake in 3DO, will manufacture the hardware for the new 'multiplayer', which it hopes will become the standard in TV-top systems; Universal's US parent, MCA, is writing the first game software for 3DO - Jurassic Park - with the help of Spielberg, a fanatical game player.

Never before has there been such a co-ordinated advance effort involving all divisions of a modern, multinational, entertainment-industry conglomerate, industry analysts say. Matsushita - whose prime world- wide brand is Panasonic - has sunk millions of dollars more into marketing plans and preparation of spin-off properties.

'The Holy Grail in this industry is to try and find a project that can work in 10 different ways,' says Roy Furman, president of Furman Selz, a New York investment firm that specialises in entertainment and media. 'Most of these just don't work. But Jurassic Park seems a good shot because it has such immediate applications in so many ways.'

Universal, which has been on a cold streak since its acquisition, needs a giant hit to energise itself and Matsushita, which has also been hurt by worldwide economic sluggishness. 'I'm putting my neck on the line here,' Sid Sheinberg, the studio president, said before the film's release in the US three weeks ago.

Sheinberg's neck seems safe for the moment. If Hollywood could reliably clone the success of Jurassic Park, no one would be suggesting the studios are dinosaurs. But the theme park in the film is a failure scientifically and financially. And in Crichton's book, at least, Hammond, its architect, is eaten by his own creations - the price for toying with Darwinian laws.

'Malcolm's words are a warning to all directors dazzled by the great new toys of filmmaking,' warns Richard Corliss, Time magazine's film critic.

He might well have added those in Hollywood dazzled by the new toys of money-making.

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