"Beavis and Butt-head Do America's" impressive leap to the big screen ($20.1 million for a first-place finish and a record-setting December gross) was a vindication for its creator, Mike Judge, who had argued against releasing a live-action version of his MTV series.
The sixth-best opening for an animated film, "Beavis and Butt-head" was also the fulfillment of a long-standing vision on the part of Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone. A production of Viacom's new MTV Films, the under $20-million movie was the first collaboration between the group and Paramount Pictures, which he purchased in February 1994.
"Sumner Redstone was the driving force behind the film," said Wayne Lewellen, head of distribution for Paramount, which is releasing the film in association with Geffen Pictures. "When he was talking about merging with Paramount, this was one of the synergies he visualized. We opted to release 'Harriet the Spy'--produced by Viacom's Nickelodeon--this summer and 'Beavis' during a period when the kids are out of school. Research indicated that the picture was the first choice among its primarily young, male audience but, even then, we only expected $12 [million]-$15 million going in."
Just a week or so after the MTV show's 1993 premiere, studios were interested in making a film, recalls Judge, who not only directed and co-wrote the series but records the voices of his moronic main characters. Interestingly enough, Paramount wasn't among them.
"Paramount only stepped in after the merger with Viacom," he said. "And unlike those before them, they never saw it as live-action. The conventional wisdom is that adult animated features such as 'Cool World' and other Ralph Bakshi movies don't succeed. . . . Geffen was going to cast unknowns. Though MTV owns the characters, I told them that I wouldn't be involved with any live-action project--so this is particularly satisfying for me.
"This apparently served as a bizarre antidote to the typical comedies out there. Once we got the go-ahead the studio wanted it as fast as possible because, with all the reruns, the ratings had been leveling off."
MTV, in fact, has been instrumental in the movie's marketing process. The cable channel aired a 30-minute "Beavis & Butt-head Movie Special" on Dec. 8, which has repeated at least twice. MTV also has scheduled broadcasts of a "B&B" Christmas special. Described as an "up-close and personal interview with the studs themselves," the program features preview clips from the film. Two songs from the soundtrack--LL Cool J's "Ain't Nobody" and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Love Rollercoaster"--are among the nation's top dozen most-played videos, according to Broadcast Data systems. Both are in "heavy rotation," MTV says.
"You can't turn on the channel without seeing something about the movie--they've created a lot of awareness," one insider notes.
Dan Marks, senior vice president of the box-office tracking firm Entertainment Data Inc., says that the audience for this movie traditionally rushes out fast--so the long-term prospects are in doubt. Though the gross should be considerable, Friday's was greater than Saturday's--and Saturday's more than Sunday's, he points out. "The same adolescents and college students who responded to the irreverent, anti-authority 'Mars Attacks!' dashed out to this one a week later," Marks said. "But this picture may not have tremendous legs. It should play nicely through the holidays while the kids are running around, but may fade quickly after that."
Paramount, for its part, is riding the wave, adding an additional 150 to 200 theaters by week's end. "I'd be happy if we're strong through the New Year," said Lewellen. "The audience has already expanded far beyond the targeted group. Since the picture did well in Canada where MTV isn't even broadcast, we found that the characters don't have to be familiar for people to turn out. That bodes very well for the rest of the world.
"Anyhow, relative to the cost, we don't have to do blockbuster business to be successful."
Times staff writer Jerry Crowe contributed to this story.