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THE BIZ / ALAN CITRON

Dogged by Family-Oriented Movie Themes

June 01, 1993|ALAN CITRON

In Hollywood, dog used to be a synonym for bad. There were dog movies and dog scripts, dog ideas, even dog marketing campaigns. Now that has all changed.

With Memorial Day weekend ushering in the dog days of summer, some of the hottest properties are "dogs." They go by names such as "Good Dog, Carl," "Lassie," "Bad to the Bone," "Martha Speaks" and "Beethoven 2."

Studios are so dogged in their determination to make dog movies that they are even competing with one another for projects. Dogs with human traits are especially hot. Disney's "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey," in which actor Michael J. Fox gives voice to the canine lead, took in more than $40 million at the domestic box office in its first two months.

Disney is already at work on another dog film, the sequel to "White Fang." Acknowledging the company's long and successful run with animals, one studio executive says: "We always have dog films in development. It's like a whole division of our company."

Rupert Murdoch's 20th Century Fox is wagging its tail behind Disney, with at least three dog-related movies in the pipeline, one of which is being merged with a project about a talking pig.

"Martha Speaks" is based on the children's book by Susan Meddaugh and follows the story of a family dog that suddenly gets gabby after eating a bowl of alphabet soup. Another project, called "Cyrano," is in an earlier stage of development. It concerns a dog whose drug-sniffing skills are so great that it is put in the witness protection program.

"Cyrano" is the brainchild of writer Michael Miller and producer Andrew Deane. As Miller tells it, they faxed copies of their story to the seven major studios one Thursday afternoon. By the following day, four were ready to make a deal.

Fox emerged as the winner, even though it already had "Martha Speaks" in the development pound. While studio executives say "Cyrano" will be merged into a project about a talking pig called "Hamlet," the avid interest in animals says a lot about the current state of affairs in Hollywood, where all things family-oriented are intensely in vogue.

Studio executives are sure that cuddly fare is the magic antidote for audiences maxed out on sex and violence. That explains the proliferation of projects based on comics ("Dennis the Menace," "The Flintstones"), sitcoms ("The Brady Bunch," "The Beverly Hillbillies" "Hogan's Heroes," "Addams Family Values," "Car 54, Where Are You?"), "Saturday Night Live" skits ("Wayne's World 2," "The Coneheads," "Hans and Franz") and other animal subsets such as pigs and monkeys.

Producers who tend toward more mature projects are increasingly being told to dumb down.

"The sad thing is that the next round of development is 40% stupider than this one," grouses one producer who is in a position to see the latest scripts. "It's fairly routine these days to hear people say, 'That idea's too smart. You really ought to take it to HBO.' "

Yet for studios chiefs chafing under budgets that average $40 million per film for production and marketing, the appeal of dogs may not be so hard to comprehend.

They work cheap, meaning no one gets fired if a dog movie bombs. They never challenge the decision-making process--no dog has ever called his director a jerk. Dog movies also tend to spawn sequels, as Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and Benji can attest. And with dogs, even gender and mortality are not issues, since one servile collie is pretty much interchangeable with another.

Paramount is so sold on the genre that it is bringing back the most venerable of all dogs. "Lassie" will be produced by Lorne Michaels, who is better known for pop culture comedy. There is no word on the plot, though it is unlikely "Lassie" will come back as a Conehead.

Meanwhile, Universal is hoping to strike gold a second time with "Beethoven 2." The original, which was made for about $15 million, has taken in more than $100 million at the box office worldwide. Even more significantly, about 4 million copies of the "Beethoven" video have been sold. The return to Universal on the tape alone: $68 million.

"Beethoven 2" is being readied for a fall release. Universal Chairman Tom Pollock says he has several other dog projects in development. Pollock sees no danger of dog overkill.

"It's like cop movies," Pollock said. "Good cop movies work and bad cop movies don't. Most movies about dogs are perfect for parents and their kids, unless they're about killer Dobermans."

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Call Me: The giants of the phone and cable industries are said to be in serious discussions about a business deal, though sources say it is premature to predict the outcome. AT&T and Tele-Communications Inc., which are seen by many analysts as natural partners in the ongoing technological revolution, are said to be discussing a joint venture or other form of business alliance, rather than an outright merger. The two companies have declined comment, but sources say their talks heated up after US West invested $2.5 billion in Time Warner two weeks ago.

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Don't Call Me: Columbia Pictures is getting prickly over rumors that "Last Action Hero" will not be ready in time for its scheduled June 18 release. In a Memorial Day weekend statement, the studio said it "is happy to take press calls on all topics--except the crushingly boring and now self-evident subject" of the "Last Action Hero" release date, which remains June 18.

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