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Cook Up a Tasty Feature and People Will Eat It Up

November 10, 1996|Judy Brennan | Judy Brennan is a regular contributor to Calendar

Any movie executive will tell you the best advertising is word of mouth.

So it probably should be no surprise that movies featuring food have generally done well at the box office, relative to cost. In fact, food is one genre that producers and executives have come to savor. Witness the mounting success of "Big Night," about two immigrant brothers in the '50s who run a failing Italian restaurant across the street from a sleazy commercial operator drumming them out of business. The climax of the film is the preparation and consumption of a luscious, sensual Italian feast.

The Rysher Entertainment film, released by Samuel Goldwyn, cost less than $4 million and has already grossed $7.6 million in seven weeks of limited release. In fact, it has only played in 350 theaters nationwide.

Critics may hail star/co-director Stanley Tucci and co-director Campbell Scott's wonderfully woven story, but plenty would say the star of this film is the cuisine.

"You walk out of this movie starving," says Mark Gill, marketing chief of competitor Miramax. "Doesn't matter if you eat first. You see the movie, then you want to eat some more."

Gill knows what he is talking about. Miramax distributed the highest grossing foreign language food movie of all time, 1993's "Like Water for Chocolate," which earned $21.7 million in U.S. box office. The Mexican film also happens to be the second-highest-grossing foreign language film of all time.

Another well-received food film is the 1994 Goldwyn release "Eat Drink Man Woman," a food film that grossed $7.29 million at the box office domestically. Many who have seen "Big Night" compare it to that film.

"What can I tell you? We're into food," says Goldwyn President Meyer Gottlieb. "Food is a critical actor in this film. In fact, this film has many, many courses. In fact, it's even got one of Stanley's mother's recipes in the film. Don't ask. He won't divulge.

One of the best remembered feasts for the eyes to roll out in U.S. theaters was Orion Classics' 1988 critically acclaimed "Babette's Feast," which followed the preparation of an incredibly lush and sumptuous meal. The film grossed $4.4 million in the U.S.

And many critics have said that Henry Jaglom's 1990 "Eating" is one of his best films to date. All of these films were low budget and in the end profitable.

So what draws the public to movies about food?

"What's the most sensual thing you can think of besides sex . . . and maybe a great massage?" says Pepper J. Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington. "Food. It makes your body happy, your soul happy. And after you've had it, you don't want it again for a couple of hours.

"The other thing about food movies is the purity and quality of the way the food is presented. It doesn't matter how poor or rich you are, everyone can relate to great food. And the way it is played out . . . these aren't fast food sagas. Sex and food are the two things that satisfy appetite and need. You're talking about emotions surrounding two elements that are barely in control and best when out of control."

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