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'Platoon'--hollywood Steps On A Gold Mine

January 25, 1987|JACK MATHEWS

People are lining up all over America to hurt themselves. They're standing in lines that run around the block, often in sub-zero temperatures, waiting for the opportunity to pay from $4 to $6 for a ticket to a movie that may be more violent, more frightening and more depressing than anything they have ever seen before.

For some, a fragile minority who view the movie as a personal flashback, it is a return ticket to the abyss.

The movie is "Platoon," combat veteran and Oscar winning screenwriter Oliver Stone's grunt's-eye view of the war in Vietnam, and it--not "Crocodile Dundee"--is the most surprising box-office smash to grace a studio's ledger in this decade.

With a mighty push from the media, whose critics have formed a national chorus to sing its praises and whose editors have given over massive amounts of time and space to assessing it, "Platoon" has become the movie of the moment.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 1, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Page 33 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
David Weitzner was the head of marketing for Universal Pictures when "On Golden Pond" was released in 1981, not Charles Glenn, as reported in last Sunday's Calendar. Glenn, now executive vice president for Orion Pictures, held the Universal marketing post after Weitzner, who is now with the Weintraub Entertainment Group.

Orion Pictures, whose marketing people conceived a crafty campaign to establish "Platoon" as the "first real movie about the Vietnam War," have been rewarded with a breakthrough hit that also figures as the 1986 movie to beat in the coming Academy Awards contest.

Orion, ignoring the conventional Hollywood wisdom that says you don't release downbeat movies during the holidays, opened "Platoon" Dec. 19 in six theaters in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto. The opening was scheduled to qualify the movie for Oscars and to give the nation's most prominent critics, winding down from a year of high-calorie comedies and action-adventures, something nutritious to chew on.

Not only did the critics bite happily on "Platoon," so did editors in other departments.

The movie's appeal crossed over into news, editorials and features. It is that perfect media movie, a mass entertainment with both artistic and social pretensions, with a premise based on the one of the century's most controversial events. Political pundits could see it and discourse from the grandstands. Reporters who were also Vietnam combat veterans could see it and reflect from their own experiences. Editors on the smallest papers could send their youngest reporters to the movie with a handful of vets, sure in the knowledge that they'll come back with a compelling human-interest story.

Radio talk-show hosts in cities where the movie was playing had merely to toss it out as a subject to get their phones ringing. In Los Angeles, KABC's Gary Franklin invited listeners of his two-hour Saturday talk show to call in and discuss "Platoon," or any other movie on their mind. "Platoon" is all they wanted to talk about. In Chicago, WGN radio personality and film critic Roy Leonard had taken so many "Platoon" calls, he said he decided to ration the number he would take each day, concerned that the subject was shutting out listeners who hadn't seen the film.

"(I) get calls on the movie just about every day," Leonard said. "It started when a woman called to say she and her husband, who was a former Marine, didn't find it ("Platoon") realistic. The phones rang off the hook after that from people defending it."

"Platoon" worked as well as a news topic for the national media as the local. The movie's principals, with writer-director Stone on point, were gathered for featured looks on ABC's "Nightline" and the "NBC Nightly News." CBS hunted down three of Stone's actual Vietnam platoon-mates and reunited them for a taped two-hour bull session in its New York studio, with highlights to run on the new "The Morning Program" Feb. 9-13, during the week of the Academy Award nominations.

Last week, Orion's marketing executives got their own equivalent of the Oscar when Time magazine put the movie on its cover with the headline billing, "Platoon, Viet Nam as It Really Was."

The critical word, as positive a consensus as any movie is apt to get, combined with the news urgency accorded it by the media, filled theaters. Though the six original theaters overflowed mostly with Vietnam vets, many of whom were showing up in combat jackets with their years of service sewn on the sleeves, "Platoon" was seen instantly as a commercial hit and Orion moved quickly to book it in more theaters.

By Jan. 16, it was playing on 174 screens in 25 cities and last weekend, with 100 new prints and 12 virgin markets added, its receipts averaged an astonishing $21,440 per screen. (An average of $8,000 would be considered good.) After 17 days, "Platoon" has earned $11.1 million, probably enough--measured against its $6-million budget and Orion's marketing costs--to have already put it in the black.

The demographics of audiences for "Platoon" have begun to shift. Critics and commentators, fired up by the thought that "Platoon's" inherent anti-war message may neutralize some of the romanticized notions of Rambomania, have been touting this graphically violent, drug-laced R-rated feature as a family movie--at least for families with teen-age children--and families are beginning to go.

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