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Famous First Words

The Preseason Buzz Is a Renowned Predictor of How Movies Will Fare

June 13, 1997|CLAUDIA ELLER

The "buzz" on 20th Century Fox's big action movie "Speed 2: Cruise Control," which opens today, is simply awful.

"It stinks," "There's no story," "It's going to be the biggest money loser of the summer," are among the things Hollywood insiders have been saying for months about the upcoming sequel to the 1995 hit that boosted the careers of Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.

The buzz on Warner Bros.' "Batman" sequel, which comes out next weekend, is equally negative.

"The series is worn out," "It's way over the top," "It looks like a bad version of 'Starlight Express,' " say folks in the movie industry.

The industrywide buzz on Sony Pictures' "Men in Black," which stars Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, is that it's this summer's event movie to beat: "It's going to be huge," "It's going to blow everything else out of the water," "Every kid in America wants to see this picture."

There also is very positive buzz on Sony's other summer entries, which include "Air Force One," with Harrison Ford, and the romantic comedy "My Best Friend's Wedding," which stars Julia Roberts, as well as Warner Bros.' "Contact," with Jodie Foster, and "Conspiracy Theory," which teams Roberts and Mel Gibson.

"Buzz" is industry jargon for the word among several thousand movie industry insiders--studio executives, agents, managers, lawyers and talent as well as publicists, critics and journalists--who often know or hear things about films long before they're shown or even completed.

To some extent, all industries thrive on trade gossip. But Hollywood buzz is unique in degree; its inhabitants make a living manipulating ideas and trading on information.

It's intangible, yet those in the business talk about it as if it were a concrete thing, as scientific as a poll. The consensus in Hollywood is that, in most cases, buzz is a good predictor of how a movie will do at the box office.

"It's a good indicator of which way the wind is blowing," said Mark Gill, president of marketing for Miramax Films and the former head of publicity for Columbia Pictures. "It's pretty unusual for buzz to be completely wrong."

In recent years, buzz has taken on a heightened meaning because of the attention paid to the workings of the entertainment industry by every major media outlet.

"Reporting across the country on inside industry information has become part of the mainstream," said Gerry Rich, marketing president of MGM-UA. "Audiences are now aware of production budgets, production problems, box-office grosses and per-screen averages--which have all become part of the vernacular throughout America."

Industry buzz is now reported on by such TV programs as "Entertainment Tonight" and "Extra," Rich notes, "in places like Peoria, Ill.--and that never happened before."

Studio executives agree that more often than not, the buzz tends to be right on.

"Most of the time, the buzz is right," said Peter Wilkes, senior vice president of executive communications at Sony Pictures.

Last year, nearly everyone in Hollywood was convinced that "Independence Day" would be huge. In 1994, word had it that James Brooks' "I'll Do Anything" was going to be a bomb.

However, there have been instances when the buzz was totally off.

Some examples: Kevin Costner's 1990 three-hour western "Dances With Wolves" was dubbed by Hollywood "Kevin's Gate," a reference to United Artists' 1980 notorious disaster, "Heaven's Gate." Similarly, Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" was said to be too long, too violent and too self-indulgent to attract audiences. Both movies did well at the box office and swept the Oscars.

Last Christmas, the buzz throughout Hollywood was that Fox's romantic comedy "One Fine Day," starring "ER's" George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer, was a slam dunk. It wasn't. The controversial "The People vs. Larry Flynt," released last fall, had terrific buzz going in, but the film, after being critically well-received, never found its audience.

Another classic example from Gill's days at Sony (which owns Columbia Pictures and TriStar Pictures) was how the pre-release buzz on James Cameron's summer 1991 movie, "Terminator 2," was terrible. The film became a worldwide mega-hit.

Said Gill, "Everyone said it will be a disaster and will sink Sony and Carolco," the movie company that produced the action film. The negative buzz was generated by the fact that "Terminator 2," costing $100 million, was going to be the most expensive movie ever made (at the time) and that the director was having problems making the original release date because of technical production problems.

The buzz on Cameron's latest movie, "Titanic," is equally bad for many of the same reasons, which have more to do with the movie's extraordinary cost of more than $200 million and troubles on the set than with the quality of the film.

Early word, which sometimes comes even at the script stage, often escalates during the production, particularly when there are problems.

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