With stars Dustin Hoffman and Geena Davis, a satirical-comedy story, an upbeat ending and a generous advertising campaign, "Hero" was expected to live up to its name at the box office last weekend.
Instead, the movie wound up a weak fourth behind "The Last of the Mohicans," the Michael Mann adaptation of the classic James Fenimore Cooper novel that retained its position as the No.1 box-office attraction; "The Mighty Ducks," about the escapades of a pre-teen ice hockey team, and Tom Selleck as an over-the-hill professional baseball player in Japan in "Mr. Baseball."
The current crowded field of movies is an unusual situation, said Daily Variety box-office analyst Art Murphy, considering early autumn is usually a slow period. But with hits like "Mohicans" and Universal Pictures' high-tech caper movie "Sneakers," starring Robert Redford, grosses for the month of September were 10% higher than last year.
"Mohicans' " second strong week despite competition from the three new films confounded the experts.
"I was surprised that a historical novel would draw so well," said Murphy.
"You wouldn't expect a movie that goes deeply into American history to perform like it did, or that a kids movie ("Mighty Ducks") would draw just as school is starting," said one theater exhibitor.
"Mohicans," in its second weekend, claimed about 20% of the overall business for the weekend, Murphy said. The top-ranked film in "off seasons" such as spring and early fall "generally have a vacuum effect on the marketplace. They tend to sweep up all business and clobber the competition."
And distributor 20th Century Fox believes this is hardly the last of the Mohicans. With about $20 million in grosses to date, Fox executive vice president Tom Sherak predicts it will go on to gross about $60 million.
"It's a piece of Americana and it delivers. The word of mouth continues to be very strong," Sherak said. The film, variously estimated to cost $35 million to $40 million, stars Daniel Day-Lewis as an Indian-raised frontier rebel during the French and Indian War.
What accounts for much of the success of "The Last of the Mohicans" is not just how much Fox spent in marketing the picture, but where the studio spent its money.
Sources put Fox's prints and advertising costs somewhere between $15 million and $20 million, considered high by industry standards for a movie budgeted at $35 million. Yet, competitors credit Fox for "smart media buys"--including paying such premium prices as $310,000 for a 30-second spot on the season premiere of "Murphy Brown"--in order to reach the picture's targeted core audience of adults aged 25-49. Fox denies the marketing campaign was so expensive.
He would not specify a dollar figure, but Sherak said "the amount was proportional to any other movie we've felt strongly about. It's a very competitive market right now. If it felt like a $15-million campaign, then they did a great job."
Industry analysts also say they are doubly impressed at the movie's popularity considering it's a period drama with no big-name stars. British actor and Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis (for "My Left Foot") is a critics' favorite, but until now, hadn't proven to be much of a box-office draw.
In light of that, one studio marketing executive said: " 'Dances With Wolves' surprised everyone, but it, at least, had Kevin Costner. This is more a phenomenon. Daniel Day-Lewis is, like, you know, who?"
"Mohicans" initially played its strongest in the small towns and from the middle of the country, Sherak said. But in its second week, it is also drawing strongly in urban centers and on the two coasts. The emphasis now will shift to attracting the older teen audience. He said the romance will be played up and quotes like "Think of 'The Last of the Mohicans' as the 'Die Hard' of the frontier," by Houston Post critic Tim Carman, will be utilized.
Murphy said that the high expectations for "Hero" were not unjustified, but considering there are so many films at the moment "it's a respectable opening."
Columbia Pictures, which distributes "Hero," thinks it will have a "good, long playing life," based on audience surveys over the weekend, a studio spokesman said. "It had a very extensive, and, we think, a very effective marketing effort."
But one exhibition source said that the $35-million movie "clearly didn't have a good opening."
The source speculated that the film's satirical look at American attitudes about heroism, has limited appeal between the coasts.
By contrast, the low-budget "Mighty Ducks" from Walt Disney Pictures, estimated to cost $11 million to produce, drew heavily in all parts of the country. The film's box-office ranking was even more surprising, considering that its only star is former brat packer Emilio Estevez, and the bulk of its tickets were sold at children's prices.
"Glengarry Glen Ross," the adaptation of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, earned a creditable $2.1 million on 416 screens.
Jane Galbraith contributed to this report.