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Honey, They've Enlarged the Field : Surprise Successes Could Lead to More Diverse Movie Fare

June 28, 1989|JACK MATHEWS | Times Staff Writer

Walt Disney Studios' "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" has cute written all over it. First, there's the cute title, in the vein of Old Disney's "Son of Flubber." Then there's the trailer, in which meganerd dad Rick Moranis is shown accidentally zapping his kids with a bolt of something that makes them small enough to go rafting on Cheerios. Finally, there's "Tummy Trouble," the cute little Roger Rabbit cartoon that accompanies it.

But where in Hollywood's Book of Wisdom does it say cute is worth a fortune at the box office?

With its monster $42.7-million opening, "Batman" rightfully dominated the news about Hollywood's greatest weekend. It packed so many bottoms into so many seats around the country that only a fool would bet against its winning the summer.

Still, when you weigh results against expectations, the real shocker over the weekend was the performance of cute little "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." The movie grossed $14.3 million to shatter all Disney studio records and leave its top executives wondering what hit them (a Mack truck loaded with dough).

"All I can say is we are as dazzled and startled as anyone," said Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. "Our tracking showed that there was awareness of the film out there, but there was nothing to make us think it would do what it did."

Katzenberg, who has spent much of the last month trying to explain the success of Touchstone's "Dead Poets Society," declined to analyze the even greater opening of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," suggesting only that good movies usually find their audience.

But in the case of "Honey," it found its audience and those of "Ghostbusters II" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," as well. In racking up the third-highest opening receipts for a non-sequel, "Honey" bullied those blockbusters right out of the way to trail only "Batman" during the first weekend of summer.

Reviews for "Honey" were mostly positive, but reviews for family movies seldom produce the sort of stampede enjoyed by "Honey" exhibitors. Besides, the reviews weren't \o7 that\f7 good.

The answers rest in the area that Katzenberg chose not to discuss: the studio's marketing plan. Disney's decision to pair "Honey" with "Tummy Trouble" was a master stroke. If you're going head to head with "Batman," "Ghostbusters" and "Indiana Jones," who are you going to call, Rick Moranis or Roger Rabbit?

The cartoon is just seven minutes long, but it has a year of goodwill behind it and Disney's smooth-functioning marketing machine made sure everyone knew about it. "Honey" and "Tummy Trouble" received almost equal time and space in the studio's high-profile print and television advertising campaigns and it may have started a trend that only Disney can exploit.

"Tummy Trouble" reportedly cost $1 million to make. That's equivalent to 12% to 15% of the marketing budget for a major studio release. Most of Disney's mainstream films, released through Touchstone, are star vehicles that don't need a funky rabbit beating the bushes for customers. But for its family movies released under the name of Disney, what better--and more cost efficient--way to turn a small movie into an event?

"Honey" no doubt benefited from the "Batman" overflow in multiplexes where both films were playing. "Batman" screenings were sold out all over the country, and for the family trade being turned away--especially those who had already seen "Ghostbusters" and "Indiana Jones"--"Honey" would have seemed an ideal alternative.

The surprising opening performance of "Honey" is one more good note to be found in the early going of this record summer. Universal's "Field of Dreams," a spring release that has lingered into summer, and Disney's two surprises--"Honey" and "Dead Poets Society"--have shown that more original fare can survive and flourish in the shadows of the towering sequels.

"Dead Poets" went up against "Indiana Jones" a month ago and lived to tell about it. The prep school drama has grossed $35.6 million in four weeks and is about to overtake "Star Trek V" on the summer chart. "Field of Dreams" is just about played out after 10 weeks, but will be around long enough to pass the $50-million mark.

Whenever a film breaks out of the formula and turns research on its head, moviegoers are the winners.

When "Prizzi's Honor" was released during the summer of 1985, it was almost alone among non-action, non-adventure films.

This summer is laced with them: Friday, Universal opens Spike Lee's controversial "Do the Right Thing" in 350 theaters, and the film has already generated enough publicity to make its $6-million budget look like the safest bet in the business. Next month, Columbia opens Rob Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally," a relationship comedy for people old enough to have had relationships, and in August, Columbia will release Brian De Palma's "Casualties of War," a Vietnam drama.

Meanwhile, mainstream summer audiences have just begun to spend their money.

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