Hindsight: May 1990

By Daron Aldridge

May 5, 2009

They've just realized there are no Deloreans in this era.

Welcome to May 1990, when the summer movie season still began on Memorial Day weekend with the end of the school year. Who dares to challenge the emerging box office might of Pretty Woman?

In 1990, April showers didn't exactly drench the box office as weekend after weekend was a virtual drought of box office winners. May flowers would have to come on their own and before the end of the month, a couple new releases would try to kick off the summer movie season properly.

Apropos of Wolverine opening this past Friday with $34.1 million, a look at May 1990 can really illustrate how the box office landscape and movie-going habits of the public have changed in nearly two decades. Try this on for size: You have to combine the inflation-adjusted weekend grosses of the top four films the weekend of May 4th to 6th in 1990 to match what Wolverine did in a single day in 2009. So, it's abundantly clear that the studios then didn't regard the beginning of May as the starting line for the summer box office race, like they do today.

On the Monday morning after the first weekend of May, Julia Roberts' Vivian hadn't yet picked the money of the top box office spot's nightstand and made a break for it. She was still hanging around as the U.S. moviegoers were her best customers. With a slip of only 5% after a month and a half, Pretty Woman scored another $6.8 million ($11.6 million adjusted to 1990 dollars) and was still sitting...well...pretty as the number one movie in America.


Predictably, numero dos was the quartet of radioactively-powered turtles. With a drop of 23% to $5.3 million ($9 million adjusted), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crossed that all-important milestone of $100 million after 38 days.

The third spot goes to the debuting horror anthology/TV show adaptation Tales from the Darkside with a $5 million ($8.5 million adj) take. It was the only debuting film to actually make any dent in the box office this weekend. With its third place debut, Tales from the Darkside and its minuscule $3.5 million budget added fuel to the fire that horror films, even those of dubious quality (looking at you, Darkness Falls and Boogeyman), can be moneymakers if the cost is kept low. The budget was possibly kept so low because the actors were only needed for about 25-minute long vignettes. The cast of diverse acting talents included future-multiple Oscar nominee Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Blondie's Deborah Harry and Joey Lawrence's little brother/Gimme a Break coattail rider, Matthew, as well as Christian Slater. Slater's appearance was the first of his three 1990 films (followed by Young Guns II and his big turn in Pump Up the Volume), an attempt at mainstream acceptance that would have probably repulsed J.D. from Heathers.

As expected, the next two spots were occupied by two April leftovers, Spaced Invaders and The Guardian. Despite adding 20+ screens, the alien invasion "comedy" Spaced Invaders dropped 30% to $3.5 million ($5.4 million adjusted) and logged one of the lowest per screen averages in the top ten, second only to the long-in-the-tooth Driving Miss Daisy. William Friedkin's thriller The Guardian was the proud owner of the largest drop in the top 20 with its embarrassing plummet of 46% to $3 million ($5.1 million adjusted).

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