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'Green Tomatoes': Why a Little Film Bloomed : Movies: Film starts slowly at the box office but word of mouth, themes, strong cast ignite interest in the $11-million work.

February 10, 1992|DAVID J. FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When "Fried Green Tomatoes" opened to mixed reviews in the last week of 1991, the film seemed destined to be lost amid the higher profile movies also debuting that week--Barbra Streisand's "The Prince of Tides," Oliver Stone's "JFK," and Lawrence Kasdan's "Grand Canyon," not to mention such on-going hits as "Hook," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Father of the Bride."

But since its opening on only five screens nationally, interest in "Fried Green Tomatoes" has ignited.

"There is a strong word of mouth on this movie," said John Krier, the owner of Exhibitor Relations Co., Inc., a firm that tracks box-office data. "When they like it in the smaller towns, that's a sure sign it's going to be a success."

For seven weeks, the film's distributor, Universal Pictures, has systematically expanded the number of theaters where "Fried Green Tomatoes" is showing, to the current 1,229 screens. That was not the typical approach in a business where hit movies, such as "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" or "Medicine Man," this past weekend's box-office leader, typically open "wide," in more than a thousand theaters.

In the weekend just ended, "Fried Green Tomatoes" sold an estimated $6.1 million worth of tickets, enough business to keep it third or fourth in the nation, based on preliminary figures, down from second a week ago. But its drop in business was minimal--estimated by sources at under 10%--compared to the drop-off of 20% or better among other continuing films.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 11, 1992 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 3 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Screen credit--The co-sceenwriting credit for the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes," mentioned in an article published Monday, should have been given to the late Carol Sobieski. She was given official co-writing credit after an arbitration by the Writers Guild of America between her and the film's producer-director Jon Avnet. Sobieski shared writing credit with Fannie Flagg, who was the author of the original novel upon which the movie was based.

The box-office gross of $25.4 million to date is not bad for a film that cost $11 million to produce, which is low by major studio standards. With word of mouth still ripe, and potential Oscar nominations in the wings, some feel this batch of tomatoes has only begun to start sizzling at the box office.

"The whole thing is such a turnaround from last September," recalled the film's director, Jon Avnet, who made his feature film directing debut with "Tomatoes." September was the month when several newspapers published lists of what movies were coming out for Christmas.

"I would look down those lists and see the other titles, and I would think: It's such a long shot, how is anyone going to even know about it?"

One reason suggested by some in the industry for the popularity of "Fried Green Tomatoes" is a bigger-than-expected market for "women's" films.

"At least half the movies in the current Top 10 are those that hold a special appeal to women," noted one theater chain executive. And among video rentals, the arrival in video stores of "Thelma & Louise," a film about female rebellion against men, knocked the macho action picture "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" out of first place.

In addition to "Fried Green Tomatoes," among the movies in last week's Top 10 were: "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," which touches on fears of child safety; "The Father of the Bride," about the comical preparations for a marriage; the love story "The Prince of Tides"; "Shining Through," a melodrama involving a female spy; and "Beauty and the Beast," an animated love story with a feminist twist.

Yet, all these films have moved beyond the original perceptions to become broader-appealing hits. Universal Pictures executives say this pattern has been true for "Fried Green Tomatoes," which initially was perceived in the industry as a movie appealing to women, as well as an older audience.

One of the film's producers, Norman Lear, said the perception was based on the fact that the cast is led by two Oscar winners for best actress, who do not conform to Hollywood's glamorized view of leading ladies--the veteran actress Jessica Tandy ("Driving Miss Daisy") and Kathy Bates ("Misery"). And the film also stars two lesser-known, younger actresses, Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker.

Director Avnet, who was the producer of the commercially successful Tom Cruise hit "Risky Business," said he knew from the beginning that "Fried Green Tomatoes" would be different and a tough sell.

"A plot summary of the story would never do this story any justice," he said. It didn't, when he first took the film to Universal Pictures and to Lear's ACT III Communications. And it wouldn't work in trying to sell the movie to the public, either, he said.

"When you hear the word of mouth on this picture, it's not about what happens in the movie." The talk, Avnet said, focuses on the four quirky characters, who are, simply, strong individuals and enduring friends.

"This story is about old-fashioned friendships that are less cosmopolitan and more caring than we know today," Avnet added. "That may be at the core of what makes this such a strong experience."

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