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MOVIES

In and Out of Sync With Audiences

Hollywood is typically behind--or ahead--of its time when it comes to public mood. The three constants for a hit are: Timing! Timing! Timing!

August 18, 1996|Steven Smith | Steven Smith is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Zeitgeist--n. [German, from zeit, time, and geist, spirit.] the spirit of the time; the moral and intellectual trend of any age or period.

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Bill Clinton sensed it early, at a private White House screening. Bob Dole chased its spirit three weeks ago, with press cameras, popcorn and a seat at the Cineplex Odeon.

But it didn't take a president or White House wannabe to confirm the obvious: "Independence Day"--or "ID4," as its studio cannily short-handed it before release--was the hottest topic in the American movie zeitgeist.

Catching that pop culture wave hasn't been much easier for movie-makers than it has for politicians. For every "ID4," or low-budget sleeper smash like 1969's "Easy Rider," Hollywood has created a stack of unsuccessful clones as studios try to catch up with the culture. (Remember those "Easy Rider" follow-ups, "The Strawberry Statement" and "The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart"?)

"You can't figure out what audiences want to see," insists "ID4's" co-writer and producer, Dean Devlin. "When you try, you're approaching your project completely cynically, and the audiences smell that and stay away.

"Before we made 'Stargate,' everybody said science fiction is dead. Now it's all over the place. Things are in the air. You'll find three scripts with the same subject matter selling the same weekend. They can't be copying each other; scripts aren't written that fast.

"What happens is, people who make films are part of the culture. As they're inspired by ideas, other people are inspired."

But while some films have benefited from perfect pitch for the zeitgeist, others--now considered audience favorites--were snubbed on original release, usually due to forces outside the filmmakers.

A survey of past hits and misses suggests

a few possible lessons:

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Sure, It's Great--But Are Audiences Ready?

In 1937, Walt Disney proved himself the master of trusting his gut, turning "Snow White"--rumored to be "Disney's folly"--into an Oscar-winning top grosser. Three years later, his fledgling studio experienced box office meltdown with "Fantasia"--a bestseller on video 50 years later but a theatrical bust in 1940.

The reason?

"There was a perception at that time of what an animated feature cartoon was," says film historian Rudy Behlmer. "And this was not it. It didn't have a narrative and it was perceived as highbrow."

Making matters worse: Disney's costly efforts to get theaters to install Fantasound--an early stereo system--and the closing of the European market with the start of World War II.

In the late 1960s, just after Walt's death, the world started catching up with Disney's vision as the movie was sold to "Sgt. Pepper"-era youths as the ultimate head trip. "People started asking the surviving animators if they were on drugs when they made it," recalls author Leonard Maltin ("The Disney Films"). "Young people of the psychedelic era couldn't picture that film coming purely out of people's imaginations."

Equally a downer in its time: 1946's "It's a Wonderful Life." A rushed-into-release Oscar campaign and an East Coast storm helped sink Capra's masterpiece at the box office, but audiences also seemed to reject the film's mix of postwar desperation and "Capra-corn" sentiment.

"It's not hard to imagine why the film did not do so awfully well," historian Jeanine Basinger has written in her study of the film. "Given the way it was advertised, 'It's a Wonderful Life' looked like either a light comedy or a romantic love story. Actually, it was something much darker, much deeper. Its ad campaigns told people to come for love, for laughs, for escape. If they did, they probably went home not only disappointed but a little disturbed."

Comedies--usually the quickest type of film to date--have also been fatally ahead of their time. The Marx Brothers' war satire "Duck Soup"--now considered by many their funniest film--was a box office disaster in 1933, enraging theater owners and losing the team its contract at Paramount.

Depicting world politics as pure insanity may have been too close to the bone for Depression-era audiences, and the film wasn't embraced until that busy age of rediscovery, the 1960s.

But even a light, star-driven comedy like 1938's "Bringing Up Baby" (now often cited as the height of the screwball genre) could tank at the box office. Star Katharine Hepburn "was so different from the normal American woman," according to film historian Tony Thomas. "She was a New England Yankee, austere, aloof; that Bryn Mawr accent didn't go over in Peoria, and men couldn't imagine going to bed with her."

Ultimately, Hepburn's East Coast steeliness would define her uniqueness, from her comeback hit "The Philadelphia Story" through today.

The most imitated movie of the 1980s was also a monumental flop when it premiered in 1982.

"Blade Runner's" grim look at America's crumbling infrastructure tasted especially bitter after the feel-good mood of that summer's "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."

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