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FIRST LOOK AT THE STUDIOS

THE 'CROCODILE' THAT BIT HOLLYWOOD : Aussies Beat American Studios at Own Game With Made-for-U.S. Fish-Out-of-Water Tale

November 20, 1986|DAVID T. FRIENDLY | Times Staff Writer

On Saturday night, actor-spokesman-talk-show-host Paul Hogan will be ringside watching Mike Tyson and Trevor Berbick duke it out in Las Vegas for the heavyweight championship. Hogan may be a boxing fan but he also may be preparing for a round of A List negotiations.

Next week, Hogan--who has been sent more than 50 scripts in the wake of his " 'Crocodile' Dundee" blockbuster success--will meet, separately, with Frank Mancuso, chairman of Paramount Pictures, Jeff Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, and director Ron Howard, among others. In Hollywood parlance, Hogan has "heat," that elusive quality that suggests a property--or person--that can guarantee big bucks with little risk. Here's why:

1. This week, the movie Hogan backed with some of his own money and his trademark grin, surpassed the $76-million mark at the U.S. box office, making it the most successful fall release of all time. It bumped off "Private Benjamin," which took in about $70 million over four months in 1980.

2. Now in its 27th week in Australia, " 'Crocodile' Dundee" is the top money-making film Down Under, outdrawing even "E.T." and doing about three times the business that "The Road Warrior" did.

3. For the last eight weeks, " 'Crocodile' Dundee" has been the uncontested leader at the domestic box office, crushing the competition as if it were some one-legged poacher lost in the Outback.

Why? How did this "nice little comedy" (a favorite phrase of the critics) evolve into what New York Times critic Vincent Canby called "the movie phenomenon of the year"? Is the movie that good or did Paramount Pictures, the studio distributing the picture, benefit from a lack of substantial competition? Does this prove that Australians know more about the tastes of American film-goers than our own normally sure-handed dream makers do? And just how many months will we have to wait to see a wave of croco-copies?

It's movies like "Dundee" that bring guys who made their fortunes in the oil business to Hollywood to produce movies. It looks so easy. Here is a simple adventure-comedy--a pixie Newsday reporter goes to Australia to write about legendary and leathery safari guide and brings him back to New York--with a modest $5.6-million budget that will wind up one of the year's top moneymakers. It's a classic fish-out-of-water movie from the studio that has practically made a franchise out of the genre. In recent years, Paramount has made "Trading Places," "48 HRS." and "Beverly Hills Cop"--all lucrative examples.

"The lesson here is that there is a massive audience that wants clean, wholesome entertainment," said Gene Siskel, syndicated film columnist for the Chicago Tribune. "It may be a slightly older audience and they may not go to the movies often, but they will go when they hear from their friends that it's safe to go to the movies again." Siskel and partner Roger Ebert both gave the film thumbs down on their syndicated "At the Movies" TV show but predicted it would do well at the box office.

The smartest players in all of this may be the folks at Paramount: It was reported that the studio paid about $8 million for domestic theatrical distribution, TV, video and cable rights. A number of other studios--including MGM and 20th Century Fox, which wound up with the international rights--expressed an interest, but Paramount had little serious competition for the domestic rights.

How does a major studio find out about a small Australian comedy and beat the competition to the deal? In this case, the movie was discovered by Henry Seggerman, Paramount's vice president of acquisitions, who keeps track of independent film makers around the world for the studio. Seggerman first read about the film going into production in a small item in Daily Variety. Knowing enough about Hogan's superstar status in Australia (Hogan has had his own talk show for years and has starred in more than 70 comedy specials), Seggerman visited Hogan's longtime producer, John Cornell, in July, 1985, before filming began.

"We knew this one had a good shot even before it opened in Australia," Seggerman said. "I just asked Cornell, 'How are we going to make a deal to buy your film?' "

The Paramount brass, including Chairman Frank Mancuso and Barry London, president of distribution and marketing, got their first look at "Dundee" at an April 28 screening in New York. The film was already a huge success in Australia, but that was no guarantee that it would open in the United States. A research preview showed that audiences liked it, but the scores did not immediately suggest blockbuster potential. "The one thing we all agreed on was the film's playability," said London. "It was the warmth and charisma and the general charm that Paul Hogan put on the screen."

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