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Getting Serious? : Success of 'Philadelphia,' 'Schindler's' Sends a Signal to Hollywood

March 28, 1994|CLAUDIA ELLER | TIMES MOVIE EDITOR

So, what now Hollywood?

The Oscars are over for another year. And the industry had a record $5.2-billion year at the box office.

If 1993--when the major studios tried to "do the right thing" by releasing such consciousness-raising films as "Schindler's List" and "Philadelphia"--proved anything, it was that quality can sell.

But, this is not a new concept. Any industry veteran will tell you that the majors have always made their share of provocative, issue-oriented movies. Some actually made money.

"But, you always did them with a sinking feeling that you were betting on a long shot," says John Calley, the new president of United Artists, who as Warner Bros.' head of production in the 1970s championed such risky pictures as Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 29, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 6 Column 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie producer-- Independent producer Dawn Steel was misidentified in Monday's Calendar. She is the former president of Columbia Pictures and prior to that was the head of production at Paramount Pictures.

Today, notes Calley, "there seems to be a market for the long shot and, if anything, film companies are more aggressively pursuing material of real significance." He says this is definitely the case with himself and his boss, MGM chairman Frank Mancuso, the former head of Paramount Pictures.

Calley, who dropped out of Hollywood for 13 years in 1980, admits that if someone had come to him 14 years ago about releasing "The Piano," he would have been "baffled--and wondered, 'What do we do with it?' "

Back in 1974, although Warners financed Federico Fellini's "Amarcord," of which Calley was a big fan, he said the studio's distribution executives refused to release the foreign-language movie domestically "because they didn't know what to do with it." (The film was released in the U.S. by Roger Corman's New World Pictures, and overseas by Warners.)

The major studios, says Calley, "are now honoring films of serious content and recognizing not only their value to society but their value as moneymakers." He claims that even a film like Columbia's "The Remains of the Day," which he and Mike Nichols co-produced with Merchant/Ivory and which cost around $10 million, "will (eventually) make a very significant amount of money."

"There's now a rational perception," Calley says, "that films of high quality have an audience waiting for them, and at the same time that doesn't diminish the potency of other kinds of (more commercial) films."

Producer Dawn Steel, production president at Paramount Pictures and a former studio head at Columbia Pictures, says: "We've always known that if you make a good movie, the audience will come most of the time. That we could make movies that have something to say and that they can make money--I never felt those things were mutually exclusive. . . . But, maybe, we've just lost sight of that in the last couple of years."

TriStar President Marc Platt, who had supported "Philadelphia" before any top-flight stars were attached, says he'd like to think that the past year proves that films can be provocative and emotional and find a mainstream audience all at the same time--"and that would help similar films to evolve."

"Philadelphia," he says, proves that audiences are "intelligent and seem to be hungry for movies that deal with relevant, albeit difficult or sensitive, subject matter."

While it is not the first movie to deal with AIDS, "Philadelphia" is the first major studio release about the disease. Platt said he hopes the fact that the film was headlined by Tom Hanks, one of Hollywood's biggest stars, proved that a heterosexual actor "going outside himself to portray a gay man" will help break down barriers that exist in conventional Hollywood.

Both "Philadelphia," which has grossed $66.8 million domestically, and Steven Spielberg's three-hour, black-and-white Holocaust epic, "Schindler's List," which has already sold more than $100 million worth of tickets worldwide (and industry pundits predict that figure could double), attracted bigger audiences than even the studios that released them expected.

Nonetheless, because of their questionable commercial viability, neither came to the screen easily, even though each cost considerably less than the industry average of $30 million.

*

With such serious movies proving good for the pocketbook as well as for the consciousness, it raises the question if 1993 is the wake-up call Hollywood needed?

Twentieth Century Fox chairman Peter Chernin says, "Clearly, this has been a very encouraging year in terms of the quality of movies." He said "over and over again during the year, we learned there was a more sophisticated adult audience out there than many of us thought previously."

As the number of films pouring into the marketplace today increases (especially with Disney and Warners each releasing upward of 35 a year), Chernin says, audiences are saying, "We're not interested in volume, but in good movies that are unique." He said that includes issue-oriented movies such as "Schindler's List" and "Philadelphia" or pure entertainment offerings like "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "In the Line of Fire."

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