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Warner's Christmas Present to Fox : Entertainment: The studio passed on two films that appear to be the season's biggest box-office hits. The successes couldn't come at a better time for Fox's struggling parent.

December 21, 1990|ALAN CITRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When 20th Century Fox counts its blessings this holiday season, it may want to give special thanks to Warner Bros. Warner is the studio that passed on "Home Alone" and "Edward Scissorhands," the two films that have catapulted Fox to the top of the current box-office heap.

"Home Alone," the season's surprise hit, has grossed more than $100 million and is still going strong. "Scissorhands" also has the markings of a winner, drawing the highest per-screen average of any film playing nationwide last week.

Warner, meanwhile, has found only coal in its stocking so far. Its first holiday offering, "The Rookie," is doing a fast fade after taking in $11 million, and "The Sheltering Sky" is not expected to attract a wide audience. The company's hopes now rest on "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and "Hamlet."

The box-office momentum will almost certainly shift again when those and other big movies such as Paramount's "The Godfather, Part III" and Universal's "Kindergarten Cop" join the holiday fray in the days ahead. But Fox's success with two projects that were orphaned by a top competitor says a lot about the capricious nature of filmmaking in Hollywood.

"It's real hard sorting these things out," said one industry executive who asked not to be identified. "It's a lot like picking stocks. Basically, you make a lot of mistakes."

Warner, which had its own surprise blockbuster in last year's "Driving Miss Daisy," said "Scissorhands" was presented only as an undeveloped concept and was never seriously considered by the studio. "Home Alone" was dropped after the budget, initially set at $10 million, nearly doubled. The company reasonably maintains that it was impossible to foresee the phenomenal success the film would become.

Even Fox concedes that it viewed "Home Alone" and "Scissorhands" as "second-tier" movies at best, meaning they did not expect them to challenge the season's biggest films. Fox, however, has clearly had a field day in Warner's chicken coop, and at a fortuitous time.

The company is under particular pressure to score at the box office this year because of the financial straits of its parent, Australia's News Corp. (News Corp.'s stock fell Thursday to a five-year low in Australia after a report in the Sydney Morning Herald said the firm had fallen almost a week behind a self-imposed timetable for rescheduling almost $6.9 billion of debt.) Thus far, studio chief Joe Roth has delivered, justifying the faith that Fox Inc. Chairman Barry Diller placed in him when he was chosen to revive the studio's sagging fortunes last year. Moreover, "Home Alone," at $18.2 million, and "Scissorhands," at $22 million, were bargains compared to the cost of many holiday movies.

Roth, who gave the go-ahead to both films, attributes his success to a run of good luck. (Fox also released the not-so-lucky "Predator II," a box-office dud.) But others say "Home Alone" and "Scissorhands" are proof of Roth's intuitive feel for what sells. Moreover, Fox's marketing staff is given credit for pulling off inventive sales campaigns.

Director Tim Burton had just completed "Beetlejuice" and was about to embark on the phenomenal "Batman" when he first presented the idea for "Edward Scissorhands" to Warner Bros. executives in 1988, according to his agent, Mike Simpson of the William Morris Agency.

Burton had a "first look" deal with Warner at the time. But lower-level executives at the Burbank studio passed on the opportunity to develop "Scissorhands." Industry executives speculate that the notion of a shear-handed misfit in suburbia might simply have been too bizarre for Warner's tastes.

Within a few weeks, it had landed at Fox under then-production chief Scott Rudin. His successor, Roger Birnbaum, inherited the project and made a point of promoting it when Roth was named studio chairman in August, 1989.

"Scissorhands" was one of a dozen scripts Roth took on a trip to Europe last year at Birnbaum's suggestion. Another was something called "58 Minutes," which would become the basis for another Fox hit, "Die Hard II."

Roth said "Scissorhands" struck him as something unique and marketable. "It had the underpinnings of a lot of other stories I respond to, such as 'Beauty and the Beast' and the whole Frankenstein myth," Roth said. "I thought it would be different."

Because of its bizarre theme, "Scissorhands" was always viewed as a tough sell. But a handful of previews in various California cities persuaded Fox that it had a winner, particularly with teen-agers. Fox marketing chief Tom Sherak and his staff developed a campaign that focused on the fable-like nature of the film.

"At first we weren't sure whether to show the hands," Sherak said. "We worried that people would think it was a horror movie. We also made the ads as light and people-friendly as we could."

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