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'Little Princess' Has Lackluster Return : Movies: Despite a revamped ad campaign, Warner Bros.' re-release of the critically acclaimed family film fails at the box office.

August 10, 1995|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The disappointment was evident in Mark Johnson's voice.

"Certainly, this is the worst professional experience I've ever had," said the veteran producer after his critically acclaimed family film "A Little Princess" died a second time at the box office. After earning a weak $8.9 million during its initial broad release in May, a revamped advertising campaign and good word-of-mouth failed to lure audiences into the theaters when Warner Bros. tried to reintroduce the movie last weekend--opposite "Babe," the big family hit from Universal.

"A Little Princess" had a three-day box-office gross of only $122,651 on 49 screens. A studio spokesman said Warners had planned to gradually go wider but because of the dismal second response, that won't happen.

The demise of "A Little Princess" has caused some in Hollywood to question whether Warners, a studio known for its big star-driven movies and savvy marketing, botched the job when it came to the selling the small, endearing adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel.

They question whether the film, which has a holiday feel, should have been released in the summer at all, and whether it was given appropriate advertising.

Warners believes the film was marketed correctly. It was released ahead of Universal's "Casper" and Disney's "Pocahontas." The fact that it failed to attract audiences--especially boys--was "very upsetting," said Warners spokesman Rob Friedman.

Producer Johnson, meanwhile, said he accepts the blame for the film's box-office failure. But now he even questions whether "Princess" should have been released at the start of the summer, and calls the original advertising "atrocious."

Johnson, who has produced such movies as "Rain Man" and "Bugsy," said, "My biggest personal failure was my inability to convince Warners that the movie was as good as it really was."

Johnson said he was indebted to Warner Bros. for at least trying a reissue, but added: "It's a tacit admission on their part that the movie was better than the marketing."

Had he to do it all over, Johnson said he would never have agreed to an early summer release and argued that it not be released in 1,342 theaters after only three theaters the week before.

He also said that even initial rave reviews led to mistakes.

"People were calling me and stopping me all over town, saying, 'Gee, I hear your movie is great,' " he said. "We got fooled into believing somehow that that means something."

Johnson said the positive reviews prompted the studio to open the film sooner than it planned.

Now, he said, it's clear that the movie should have been released gradually, using the time to develop positive word-of-mouth. "We needed to be gentle with it," he said.

Johnson also said the original advertising was also poorly conceived.

The one-sheet print ads showed two little girls dancing. "As my daughter said, 'It's too babyish.' My daughter is 8 years old. The colors are awful. It's cloying, puerile. My daughter also pointed out that [the ad was] not even a scene in the movie."

Johnson said he was so angry at the time that he "went in and yelled and screamed [at Warners executives] and got it off my chest. . . ." Now, he said, it's all behind him.

In reissuing the movie, Warners revamped the one-sheet. The new newspaper ad showed a close-up of Liesel Matthews, the girl who played the lead role of Sara Crewes.

While some believe the studio should have released the movie in the fall or closer to the holidays, Friedman said the decision to go early in summer was not made lightly.

First, he said, schools are out during the summer and more children can attend movies during the week with their families. Second, Friedman said "Casper" and "Pocahontas" had yet to arrive in theaters, giving "Princess" a clear period it wouldn't have later in the summer.

But by the time the movie was re-released last weekend, theaters were glutted with family films that also included "The Indian in the Cupboard" and "Operation Dumbo Drop"--not to mention "Babe."

Then there was the decision by Warners to gradually increase the number of screens from 30 two weeks ago to 49 last weekend, instead of making a bigger splash with the film.

"They dumped this movie," said one source at a rival studio. "They first put it out in the summer opposite 'Die Hard' and just before 'Casper' . . . but then, to add insult to injury, they re-release it in only 49 theaters. What's the point?"

Friedman responded: "The plan was intended to start small and then grow it out once again. Unfortunately, it didn't happen."

He pointed out that "Princess" was re-released in three theaters in Los Angeles and failed to draw sufficient crowds despite a population in the millions on which to draw.

"We've learned that just because you have a movie that is wonderfully made and well-received and has a great story, doesn't mean the public is going to go to it," Friedman said.

Johnson, meanwhile, said that despite his personal disappointment, he expects "Princess" to make enough money to cover its costs.

Oh, yes, and there is one other thing Johnson said he would have done differently if he had it to do over.

"I'd call it 'Batman 4.' "

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