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COMPANY TOWN | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

'Wedding' Rides Shotgun in Countermove

June 24, 1997|CLAUDIA ELLER

Counter-programming--the strategy of offering a movie appealing to a different audience than the maincompetition--has become a much-abused cliche in Hollywood.

It seems these days that every time a studio opens a movie during the highly lucrative and competitive summer season that is less than a $100-million-budget "event" picture, it's all in the name of counter-programming.

But the practice isn't a slam-dunk simply because a film has the potential to attract a different segment of the audience.

As one studio executive says, "It's the quality of the movie, stupid."

Last weekend, however, you could chalk one up for brilliant counter-programming.

Sony Pictures deliberately opened its $38-million romantic comedy "My Best Friend's Wedding," starring Julia Roberts, against Warner Bros.' hugely expensive event movie "Batman & Robin," which made $42.9 million at the box office in its first weekend.

Nonetheless, "Wedding," made under the former regime at Sony and its TriStar Pictures label, debuted as runner-up to "Batman" with $21.7 million at the box office--the biggest opening ever for a romantic comedy, surpassing TriStar's own 1993 hit "Sleepless in Seattle."

Its performance bettered even Sony's expectations of a $15-million to $17-million opening.

Not only did women in America turn out in droves to see an alternative to the male-oriented, bigger-than-life spectacle of "Batman," the romantic comedy also brought in men.

About six weeks ago, Sony decided to move up the film's release date one week from its original June 27 opening, putting it smack up against the "Batman" sequel.

Sony distribution chief Jeff Blake said the thinking was that if "Wedding" opened head-to-head with just one new release, it would have a better shot at getting noticed than a week later when it would compete with two new entries, Disney's animated movie "Hercules" and Paramount's action movie "Face/Off," not to mention the holdovers, including "Batman & Robin."

Sony's bet paid off. But it wasn't strictly because the release date was right or counter-programming was the key.

"The best dates in the world can't save a movie that doesn't grab the public's attention," Blake said. "It's nice when the right film ends up in the right spot, but reasons 1 through 9 about why a movie works is the movie itself."

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Blake also admits that before an opening, studios often say they're counter-programming a title as a way to "almost justify why you're doing this, but having confidence in a movie is probably the better answer" to why such a competitive move can make sense.

For every "Best Friend's Wedding" success story, there are countless examples where counter-programming proved ineffective. That is, the film didn't deliver.

Just look at Sony's own modest family movie "Buddy," which debuted two weeks ago against Disney's big action movie "Con Air" to poor results.

The concept of counter-programming was originated by the TV networks and migrated to the movie business in late 1980s. In the summer of 1989, Disney put "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" against the original "Batman." Both were successful.

Show Me the Documents: Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Ouderkirk granted a motion Monday ordering Disney to hand over financial documents to Jeffrey Katzenberg that he's requesting in his $250-million lawsuit against his former employer, but turned the matter over to a referee to specify which ones.

The documents in dispute are accounting figures of the exact costs and income of movies made at Disney during Katzenberg's 10-year reign as studio chairman, for which the executive was paid an incentive bonus of 2% of the profit.

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In an effort to determine whether he was paid what was due him, Katzenberg's attorneys are demanding a detailed breakdown of production and distribution costs and all sources of income and contracts related to each of the films. They say Disney has provided insufficient summary reports that included nothing beyond what the total income figures were.

"It's like a routine audit," Katzenberg attorney Bertram Fields said. "And they don't want to give us materials to conduct the audit."

Disney's lead attorney, Louis Meisinger, argues that Katzenberg has been provided with "reasonable documents to support their claim."

The two parties will reappear before Ouderkirk for a status hearing July 14 after retired Justice Campbell Lucas decides which documents Disney must disclose.

Monday marked the first time there was a contested motion in the breach of contract lawsuit, which was filed on April 9, 1996. It is, however, just a sidebar to the central issue in the case, in which Katzenberg is claiming entitlement to future revenues generated from such films as "The Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast," "Pretty Woman" and others.

"We won the round, but we have to win the whole battle," said Fields, who was flanked in the judge's chambers Monday morning by Katzenberg's other main attorney, Herbert Wachtell. The case is scheduled to go to trial Nov. 18.

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