When it comes to marketing movies in Hollywood, there are few tougher sells than biography and political satire. Even dead but still sexy rock stars such as Jim Morrison have a hard time drawing crowds when their stories are told on film.
So audiences went against type last weekend when they laid down a combined $17.3 million for "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story," about the life of the martial arts icon, and "Dave," a mistaken-identity saga set in the White House.
The two films helped boost moviegoing by 65% over the comparable period a year ago. Entertainment Data Inc., which tracks attendance, said both won broad audiences nationwide.
In the case of "Dragon," Universal Pictures owes much of its success to women, a group not known for embracing that genre of film. They accounted for 45% of the opening weekend audience, according to the studio. That's just 5% lower than the average turnout for "Fried Green Tomatoes," which was touted as a "woman's movie."
If "Dragon" sustains its momentum, it's conceivable that more American women will see the romanticized film version of Bruce Lee's life than saw the real Bruce Lee, whose U.S. following was made up most noticeably of teen-age boys.
Universal Chairman Tom Pollock says the studio marketed the movie largely to women as part of its bid to move beyond Lee's core audience. "Dragon," made for a relatively low $15 million, was heavily promoted on soft-rock radio stations and in ad campaigns that played up the romance between Jason Scott Lee, the charismatic actor in the title role, and Lauren Holly, who plays Lee's wife.
"Our main concern was to get the word out that we had more than just an action film," Pollock said. "And that's hard to do. When you say, 'This is about the life of Bruce Lee,' most people assume you have a kung fu film."
"Dragon" ranked No. 1 at the box office, with $10 million on 1,887 screens. Its success, which ends a long string of lost weekends for Universal, should take some pressure off the studio's beleaguered executives.
That same crowd would have had egg on its faces if "Dragon" had tanked and "Dave" had scored. The reason is that "Dave" is largely the work of Universal-based talent, even though it was produced and distributed by Warner Bros.
Gary Ross, who wrote the script after co-authoring "Big," is arguably the most high-profile writer on the Universal lot. He has an office and a secretary in Universal City, has done script doctoring on such Universal films as "Beethoven" and "Mr. Baseball" and will make his directorial debut for the studio next year.
Ivan Reitman, who directed "Dave," may be second only to Steven Spielberg in the pecking order of Universal-based directors. Reitman, whose films include "Kindergarten Cop," "Beethoven" and "Ghostbusters," is so highly valued that the studio is building him a multimillion-dollar office complex.
The reasons for "Dave" landing at Warner instead of Universal have as much to do with the length of time involved in getting the movie off the ground as with the fact that top creative people are rarely exclusive to one studio, even if the studio is paying their day-to-day overhead.
Ross sold "Dave" to Warner in 1987, three years before he made a deal to write and direct a picture for Universal. Under his contract, Ross was allowed to return to "Dave" when it went into pre-production last year.
Reitman, meanwhile, is also under a non-exclusive contract. So there was nothing to prevent him from going to work for Warner when the "Dave" script captured his fancy.
The political comedy starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver grossed $7.3 million on 1,100 screens last weekend. Its per-screen average was actually higher than "Dragon": $6,326 compared to $5,310. With those numbers, however, no one at Warner or Universal is complaining.
Says Pollock: "What this shows is that there's room in the marketplace for as many good movies as Hollywood can make."
What's chutzpah got to do with it? Studios have studiously avoided scheduling premieres on June 11 ever since Universal picked that date to open it's mega-hyped dinosaur epic, "Jurassic Park." Now some competition has emerged. Touchstone Pictures, a division of Disney, will launch its Tina Turner bio, "What's Love Got to Do With It?" in 10 major cities on that date, including Atlanta, San Francisco and Chicago. The studio sees counter-programming potential in the Turner film, which has gotten high scores from test audiences. "Love" comes to New York and Los Angeles even earlier: June 9.