Heavy trading activity in Columbia Pictures Industries stock has developed in anticipation of the release of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the Stephen Spielberg flying saucers movie that some believe can repeat the box office success of "Star Wars" and others think could be a $20 million dud.
On the skimpy evidence of two anticipatory magazine reviews - a pan in New York magazine and a rave in Time - the naysayers among investors appear to have the upper hand for the time being.
Columbia closed $1 lower yesterday at $16 a share, as 113,900 shares changed hands, making it the sixth most active stock on the New York Stock Exchange.
A build-up of sell orders had delayed the opening of Columbia for nearly three hours. When trading began, Columbia opened at $16.375, off as from the previous day's close. The stock then proceeded to dip to $15.50 before recovering slightly.
"It's crazy to hang everything on this one movie, but that's what this market is all about," commented one stock analyst.
After what "Star War" did for the earnings and stock price of 20th Century-Fox (it quadrupled them). Columbia has been one of the other movie companies to get a big speculative play from investors. And one of the main reasons is anticipation of the release of "Close Encounters," which Spielberg chose to direct after breaking box office records with "Jaws."
Columbia shares moved this year from a low of $7,375 to a high of $19.125. As recently as Friday, the stock was trading at $18.875. But on Monday, when the two magazines hit the stands, the stock started to plunge.
An article in New York Magazine by a business writer who had paid $25 to sneak into a test screening of "Close Encounters" concluded. "The picture will be a colossal flop."
And this view seemed to outweigh an assessment in Time that the UFO picture, with its record breaking special effects budget will certainly be a big enough hit to keep Columbia's stockholders happy," though "not a sure blockbuster."
Columbia Pictures, commenting on the delayed opening and volatile activity in its shares, said yesterday that it continued to believe the film will be financially, successful, based on audience reaction at secret previews held two weeks ago and the fact that exhibitors have already put up more than $20 million in guarantees - more than what it cost to produce the film. This does not include, however, the estimated $10 million in advertising Columbia is spending to promote the movie.
Columbia has gone to great lengths to keep "Close Encounters" under the tightest wraps, to prevent the often cynical advance word-of-mouth that seeps out of Hollywood, even as it has drummed up viewer expectations through double-page ads in major newspapers.
The first official screening of the movie takes place in New York City Sunday night, and it has already become the hottest ticket in town. The stock analysts who follow the movie companies have also been invited, and it will be their first chance to evaluate the movie's earnings potential at first hand.
Harold Vogel, entertainment analyst for Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, preferred some cautionary notes in comparing the potential of "Close Encounters" with "Star Wars," which is already considered the alltime box-office champ and may eventually rake in worldwide gross receipts of $400 million - double that of "Jaws."
First, he noted, Columbia owns only 60 per cent of the action on the saucer movie, not 100 per cent. The estimated $22 million production cost on "Close Encounters" is double what it cost to make "Star Wars"; and Fox did not spend anything close to $10 million to hype its movie. So Columbia neess considerably more ticket sales before it breaks even.
Vogel also pointed out that part of the reason for Columbia' stock drop on just a single piece of negative news is the great advance expectation that has been built up, which was not quite the case with "Star Wars," which appeared as a bit of a sleeper. The potential, therefore, is greater for disappointment.
"The company has placed a tremendous amount of publicity and tried to generate a large amount of interest," said Vogel.
"When expectations are very high for anything of this kind, you just deflate the expectations a little bit and what may well turn out to be a good picture isn't enough to compare with the super-high expectations people have for it," he commented.
What may turn out to be true for viewers is also the case for investors, who have been crap-shooting in Columbia stock for the last month in particular in advance of the "Close Encounters" release, and may have gotten a bit ahead of themselves.
"If there is any questioning about how good this is, with a lot of short-term money in there, these investors are not likely to stick around until all the reviews are in and the box office totals are counted up before they bail out," Vogel added.
Meanwhile, based on the slender evidence that animated the last two days' trading in Columbia, one could call it an encounter of the first kind - a sighting with neither physical evidence nor actual contact.