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MOVIE REVIEW : Life After Death: A Hit in the Offing?

May 11, 1994|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Driven by a dark and sensual television trailer that appeals to women and a soundtrack geared to the MTV generation, Miramax Films' "The Crow" starring the late Brandon Lee is posting remarkably high responses from test audiences only days before the movie opens nationwide.

If the test numbers wind up translating into big box-office business, this will be a film that truly overcame the odds: Its star died a horrible death while filming the movie and every major studio passed on the opportunity to rescue the troubled production.

But, pre-release test results of the movie has studio executives all over Hollywood scratching their heads. Total awareness of the film is 67%, according to results compiled by National Research Group, which does test marketing for the Hollywood studios, while awareness specifically among males is 72%, Miramax said.

Even more startling, however, is that 26% of the males under 25 years of age said "The Crow" was their first choice of a movie to watch this coming weekend.

"We're talking a 'Batman' quality number," said one executive at a rival studio, expressing amazement that the small movie is drawing a response reserved for the highest profile big-studio pictures. "If you're lucky, you usually get 10%."

While no one can predict how much money "The Crow" will bring in this weekend when it is released in 1,200 theaters nationwide (it opens today at two Los Angeles theaters and two New York City theaters), comparisons are in order. For example, Columbia Pictures' 1992 movie "A League of Their Own"--an ensemble piece about a women's baseball club starring Geena Davis and Madonna--opened to $14 million and it was the first choice of only 12% of the test audiences.

"So 26% is a whopping number," the film industry source said, adding "The Crow" was also the first choice among 12% of young women--also considered a strong number.

The film originally was going to be released by Paramount Pictures, but the studio bowed out after Lee--the son of the late martial arts star Bruce Lee--was accidentally killed by a gunshot during filming in Wilmington, N.C. The movie was screened for all the other major studios, but each passed on picking it up.

Miramax, which has earned a reputation for often being able to successfully market small, hard-to-sell films like "The Piano" and "The Crying Game" and turn them into profitable hits, finally was willing to gamble on "The Crow."

"We thought it had incredible style," said David Dinerstein, vice president of marketing for Miramax. "It looked like 'Batman.' It has a dark look, but the movie itself is like a 'Dracula.' It's a love story about how a man and woman pass away and the man comes back to avenge the death of his fiancee."

Dinerstein said Miramax has also been pleased that women are responding to the movie "more than we thought."

What the major studios were reluctant to deal with was marketing a movie in which the lead character actually died. "We wanted to handle this in a sensitive manner," Dinerstein said. "So, we took the classy approach to the thing. Brandon had an unbelievable career in front of him. The accident was a real tragedy. So, the film is almost a legacy to Brandon. . . . He's incredibly charismatic."

Miramax has an "extraordinarily appealing" ad running on television," said one studio marketing official. "They've done a brilliant job of making it look enticing. Lee looks sensitive and sexy."

The R-rated film is based on a series of comic strips and graphic novels by James O'Barr. In some of the comic books, the author quotes the lyrics of rock groups and the movie soundtrack is getting exposure from radio stations across the country. The soundtrack includes music by the Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails and the Cure, which Miramax is hoping will pull audiences in as was the case with such films as "The Bodyguard."

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