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JACK MATHEWS

'The Stepfather' As A Step-movie

March 04, 1987|JACK MATHEWS

Executives of New Centu ry/Vista Film Co. couldn't believe their luck last fall when they saw the brilliantly written and directed psychological thriller "The Stepfather" and were told that it was still available for American theatrical distribution.

Six months later, they still can't believe their luck. It's been all bad.

"You can't believe how heart-broken we were (when the movie opened)," said New Century Marketing President Richard Ingber. "We have liked this movie from the beginning. We just can't get people to see it."

"The Stepfather," given high marks by both research audiences and film critics, established several firsts for New Century, a new distribution company headed by former 20th Century Fox Chairman Norman Levy. It's the company's first pickup, its first critical hit and its first box-office flop. After six weeks, and with the film played out in half the American market, "The Stepfather" has grossed just $1.3 million and Levy acknowledges that he will now be happy if his company merely recoups its costs of releasing the movie.

Ingber would not say how much money New Century has spent, but given its release pattern, the figure may be close to $2 million.

"You always feel badly when you have a movie you like and you can't get people in to see it," Levy said. "But this is a terribly frustrating experience because we can't figure out why we can't get them in."

Despite its poor run in Southern California, "The Stepfather" is not dead yet. The film begins an exclusive engagement today at the UA Coronet in Westwood, backed by newspaper advertising that is costing the company more than it will make if every seat is sold for every performance.

"If we can't fill those seats with all the advertising we're doing, there is no hope," Levy said. "If we do fill them, we'll re-release the movie and give it another chance."

"The Stepfather," about a friendly psychopath who occasionally finds it necessary to murder his family, has defied every attempt by New Century to make it successful. Ingber said that from the beginning, New Century believed the film would play to the same upscale audience that turns out in big numbers for Brian De Palma movies.

The response from two recruited audience screenings added encouragement. So, while New Century's distribution people set out to book theaters in upscale areas, Ingber was designing newspaper ads and television commercials emphasizing the film's suspense elements.

The original newspaper ad showed a bearded man staring into his clean-shaven face in a mirror with the words "Who am I here?" rubbed into the fog. The ad line read: "He wanted a perfect family in a perfect town. But they couldn't measure up--neither could the others."

No one came.

The second ad, slightly more horrific than the first, showed three faces of the stepfather and included the figure of a teen-age girl holding a long shard of glass. It had the same ad line as the first.

No one came.

The third ad was a selection of quotes from such prominent critics as Newsweek's David Ansen, New Yorker's Pauline Kael and Playboy's Bruce Williamson. Upscale audiences usually respond to reviews.

No one came.

Last Friday, for its opening in several new markets, including Chicago, New Century ran yet another ad, this one showing a young girl hugging her dog while a man appeared poised to hack her with a knife from behind. The ad copy had been changed to read, "Stephanie is trying to be the perfect daughter . . . her life depends on it." There was also a quote from Kael: "The horror is there waiting all the time."

No one came.

"That was not our proudest ad," Ingber said. "We just decided to treat it as a slasher film and see what would happen."

Ingber also shifted the focus of the television commercials from the suspense to the horror elements. Instead of focusing on the character of the stepfather (played to sardonic perfection by Terry O'Quinn), the latest TV spots showed him chasing his stepdaughter with a knife.

Levy, conducting a general critique in his Century City office, blames part of "The Stepfather's" dismal start on the glut of product on the market. This is the time of year when theater owners scramble to keep fresh movies on their screens. If a movie doesn't open well, they will often move it into a smaller theater, or pair it with another film on a double bill, or drop it altogether.

"The Stepfather" opened in nearly 100 theaters in Southern California Jan. 23. Levy said that it was gone from nearly half of them by the second week and by the fourth week, it was gone altogether.

There was also a dark side to the good reviews, Ingber said.

"Even critics who were trying to help used descriptions that turned people off," he said, rifling through a file of newspaper clippings. "When they (critics) say things like 'low budget,' 'slasher,' 'B movie' . . . it doesn't matter how good they say it is, the impression people get is, 'That is something I don't want to see.' "

There are other possibilities. "The Stepfather" is not exactly the most compelling title of the year. The director, Joseph Ruben, is unknown, though he has one major studio credit ("Dreamscape"). And the film's only "name"--television star Shelley Hack--is easily resisted.

But New Century and ITC Productions, which made the movie, may ultimately be the victims of something they have no control over. Without major stars, or at least a director whose name tips moviegoers to the style, it is almost impossible to get the attention of the upscale audience that this sort of psychological thriller appeals to.

No accounting for tastes. "The Stepfather," one of the smartest and most entertaining films of 1987, can't draw flies while "Mannequin," a title that captures the intellectual energy that went into it, will have grossed $20 million by its third weekend.

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