Remember the scene in "Prizzi's Honor" where Jack Nicholson as a New York hit man walks into an elegant Los Angeles bar for a romantic meeting with Kathleen Turner wearing a canary yellow sports coat and a black turtleneck sweater?
Nicholson's ensemble (thug chic?) drew howls of laughter from paying customers wherever the movie was shown. But Anthony Thomopoulos, then head of the entertainment division of ABC, which financed the theatrical feature, said he saw "Prizzi's Honor" about four times before it opened and never realized that scene was funny.
"I never got it; I never saw the humor in it until the first time we showed the movie to an audience," said Thomopoulos, now chairman of United Artists Pictures and a man of apparent sartorial taste. "The laugh was totally unexpected to me, and it was a terrific lesson."
The lesson was formalized as a Hollywood maxim--"Nobody knows anything!"--in screenwriter William Goldman's book "Adventures in the Screen Trade." Goldman wasn't referring to the IQs of studio production executives, but to the general inability of everyone to know how anything will play for audiences until audiences see it.
You'll have better luck fielding an all-Sasquatch basketball team than a studio production executive who will admit he or she cannot divine the success of proposed projects. But occasionally, insecurities surface, as they did at one of the networks (ABC, in fact, while Thomopoulos was president of the entertainment division) when it was revealed a few years ago that a psychic was among its paid consultants.
During the last decade--roughly dating from the box-office success of "Star Wars"--studio executives were on the same hunt, trying to make movies that would convince adolescents to see each one 10 times.
Those 14-year-olds are in their 20s now, presumably Yoda-proof, and their parents are celebrating their own freedom by returning to theaters. The whole demographic bulge has worked its way up the actuarial chart a couple of notches and--imperceptible as the difference may be to critics--movies are getting more sophisticated.
"We are trying to slant movies a little more toward young adults (than teen-agers)," said Thomopoulos, whose first film as UA chief has been the modest Diane Keaton hit "Baby Boom." " 'We are finding through our exit polls on 'Baby Boom' that the movie appeals to an older group, (age) 25-plus."
Thomopoulos doesn't want to dwell on the age issue. In the unstable world of studio management, defining target audiences is like holding a resignation to your head and signing it. The truth is that studios can no longer count on teen-agers to hold them up. They can no longer aim every one of their movies at that audience and expect three or four of them to go through the roof.
Video and cable have complicated the lives of the leaders in both television and film industries. Audiences are more fragmented, less dependable. Consequently, there is less talk about concepts ("It's 'High Noon' in outer space") and more concentration on story.
Eighteen months ago, UA executives were talking about making "high-concept films that can be made with fiscal responsibility." Thomopoulos now talks about getting a balanced slate of films.
"The whole thrust of both (TV and film) is the story," Thomopoulos said. "There is incredible competition right now for good stories, for good writers. We have to come up with the best written words we can. If we get the right story, we attract the best people."
"Baby Boom" is a case in point, he said. Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers' script, about a career woman whose priorities are rearranged by her inheritance of an orphaned baby, was so strong he was able to attract Keaton as its star. The movie was released slowly because of its appeal to older moviegoers, but it is doing well.
Last weekend, "Baby Boom" trailed only "Running Man," "Fatal Attraction" and "Hello Again" on the box-office chart, despite being in from 300 to 800 fewer theaters. The film has grossed more than $16 million.
"I think we caught (a trend) with 'Baby Boom,' " said the 49-year-old Thomopoulos, whose four children include one daughter (by his first wife) in her 20s and another (by his current wife, Christine Ferrare) under 20 months. "There is a little re-establishment of values. People are asking themselves what's important in life: 'Is the rat race the ultimate, or is it family and kids?' "
Thomopoulos keeps a copy of a book about United Artists' history in his office and said he is often humbled by its contents.
"There's a hell of a heritage here to deal with," he said, flipping through the history of the company originally formed by Mary Pickford, D. W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. "I sit here sometimes at night and think about the wonderful films that have come out of this company. What a challenge to say, 'I want to add something to that library. I want to make some pictures that belong in that book.' "