Can a black comedy directed by Danny DeVito break out of a Christmas field loaded with movies made by such commercial thoroughbreds as Oliver Stone, John Hughes, Steven Spielberg and James L. Brooks?
After talking with numerous exhibitors who had seen DeVito's "Throw Momma From the Train," I concluded that the film was a long-shot entry in the Christmas Derby and ranked it 12th in a field of 13 in a handicap that appeared in Monday's Calendar.
Orion Pictures, which is distributing the movie, filed an inquiry before the horses were even out of the gate.
"You should talk to some of the press who were at the junket for 'Throw Momma,' " an Orion executive complained. "I think the movie played a lot better than 'Three Men and a Baby.' "
The reference was to an elaborate press junket held in Palm Desert last weekend for about 150 out-of-town film critics, print and broadcast reporters and TV personalities.
The weekend junket was hosted by Orion Pictures, which showed "Throw Momma" to the press and conducted round-table interviews with DeVito and his co-stars Billy Crystal and Anne Ramsey.
But Walt Disney Studios hitched a ride on the junket, bringing "Three Men and a Baby" director Leonard Nimoy and stars Tom Selleck and Ted Danson down for a day of interviews as well.
The out-of-towners were invited to a public sneak preview of "Three Men" Saturday night at the Town Center Cinema in Palm Springs. They saw "Throw Momma" earlier that morning at a private media-only screening.
Which film played better?
" 'Throw Momma' is a much better film (than 'Three Men and a Baby')," said George Anthony of the Toronto Sun. "People love Danny and Billy. I can see 'Throw Momma' opening well and having a long run."
"I was very disappointed with 'Throw Momma' . . . It is not going to do well," said Rod Lurie, a free-lance New York film writer. "I would say the audience (for 'Throw Momma') at the junket was about 50/50. Half loved it, half didn't."
"I loved 'Throw Momma From the Train,' but I'm not sure it will be a monster hit," said John Corcoran, the erstwhile critic for KABC-TV in Los Angeles, now a "life style specialist" for WNEV-TV in Boston. "There was a very strong reaction to it (in Palm Desert). I didn't hear a negative word about it."
I talked to a half-dozen of the junketeers and though most of them said they liked "Throw Momma" better than "Three Men," all but one of them believed the Disney movie is the strongest commercial entry in the Christmas field.
All of them described "Throw Momma" as a dark comedy that will appeal to adults only and the "Three Men and a Baby" as a family movie. The motion picture industry's ratings board gave "Three Men" a PG and "Throw Momma" a PG-13, but that's just six more opinions.
One thing the out-of-town press seemed to agree on was that Orion throws the best junkets in the business.
"There is no question about it, Orion knows how to organize a press junket," said an East Coast-based critic, who asked for anonymity lest he offend one of the other studios. "They fly us first class, they put us up in nice hotels, have dinners in nice restaurants and encourage us to have a lavish time."
It's been a busy year for movie junkets, the critic said. There had been junkets for Paramount's "Fatal Attraction" and "Beverly Hills Cop II" and Orion's "Best Seller." He said there are others coming up for Tri-Star's "Maybe Baby" and "Switching Channels" and Paramount's "She's Having a Baby."
The idea of press junkets is to bring the America's entertainment reporters to one spot to see a movie and interview its principals. Most major papers (including The Times) do not attend the all-expenses-paid events, but the studio marketing people believe they generate enough publicity to justify the junkets, even at first-class prices.
For the press, there is little chance of enterprise reporting. Most interviews are done at round-table settings (the stars and directors rotate at 15- or 20-minute intervals from table to table). The writers have agreed to attend without having seen the movies, setting up the uncomfortable occasion of interviewing people whose work may not prove worthy of the time.
At a Warner Bros. junket for "Superman 4" in Washington, D.C., last summer, the attending press did their interviews without the benefit of having seen the movie at all. ("They said they couldn't get the print ready," one attendee said, "but when I saw the movie later, I understood why they didn't show it to us.")
Despite the logistical problems and the ethical questions, the junkets represent the only opportunity for some entertainment reporters to interview stars. The enduring question is: Does their gratitude for the opportunities find its way into reviews and interviews?
"They are almost a bribe to journalists, sure," one reporter said. "I think a lot of people do feel guilty about giving negative reviews after all that."