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The Competition Is Only on the Surface

Movies: Simultaneous opening of new films by older heartthrobs would seem to target the same audience, but the truth is deeper.

April 20, 1998|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On the face of it, the planned May 15 premieres of Robert Redford's "The Horse Whisperer" and Warren Beatty's "Bulworth" would seem to be a head-to-head competition for a specific demographic: older, more sophisticated movie patrons, with an emphasis on women who recall the halcyon days of both men's matinee idol careers.

"The Horse Whisperer" is an adventure-romance based on the best-selling novel, while "Bulworth" is an original political satire. And since Redford and Beatty are also Oscar-winning directors who have traditionally crafted challenging adult material that depends on critical support, it would seem foolhardy for them to butt heads for that discriminating segment of the audience.

But what appears to be a showdown is reportedly a gamble of a very different kind. Each production is attempting to carve out a niche for itself before the May 20 onslaught of "Godzilla," and in the presence of another sci-fi disaster epic, "Deep Impact," which precedes them on May 8.

"Sometimes the studios, in an effort to get away from a blockbuster, back themselves into a play date that's even more competitive," observes a distribution executive from one of the other major studios.

"Bulworth," in particular, is attempting to reach some of the same audience that should flock to see the giant-creature-terrorizes-Manhattan and the asteroid-endangers-Earth sagas: young, urban males, specifically the young African American audience. "Bulworth" is largely set in Los Angeles' black community and features a star-studded rap soundtrack (being released Tuesday).

"We're going after guys," confirms Tom Sherak, president of worldwide marketing and distribution for 20th Century Fox, which expects "Bulworth" to perform equally well in Westwood and Baldwin Hills. In fact, "Bulworth" should get a big boost from its soundtrack and an in-your-face ad campaign. But women are certainly targeted by the film's trailer, which features Halle Berry.

"And I can't imagine a movie starring Warren Beatty not relying somewhat on older females," Sherak says.

Though Disney declined to comment for this article, sources at the studio agree that the Redford film (which clocks in at two hours and 35 minutes) is aimed squarely at women.

Any competition between the two is accidental, they say; "The Horse Whisperer" has been slotted for May 15 for some time, and "Bulworth" moved there only recently, after a great deal of fanfare that it was engaging in a dubious battle by opening the same day as "Godzilla." (Fox is, in fact, still flirting with a possible May 8 debut, in New York and Los Angeles, but no final decision has been reached yet.)

"The Horse Whisperer's" distribution strategy will be aimed at heartland America, suburban and rural theaters and upscale urban showcases.

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Nonetheless, exhibitors are still scratching their heads, because "neither [film] has been available for exhibitor screenings, and that's always a bit scary," says John Krier of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co. Thus, differentiating each film's particular appeal is difficult.

Though Sherak said "Bulworth" has indeed been completed (and has been selectively screened for the media), he said it's not unusual to have exhibitor screenings only three weeks before a film opens. "The Horse Whisperer," however, is still not finished, say Disney insiders. It should be done in the next couple of weeks.

Since "Bulworth" is aiming at two demographics, the young urban male and the older audience, its potential appeal is more variable.

Even with the soundtrack helping to capture the younger audience, critical reaction will be key to attracting Beatty's core fan base, which tends to depend on reviews to make its moviegoing decisions.

Marketing toward younger men is a clever way of enhancing "Bulworth's" chances at longevity. The dearth of summer movies aimed at women could give "The Horse Whisperer" the same potential as last year's "My Best Friend's Wedding" for building a consistent weekend-to-weekend audience base, whatever the critical response.

Still, with recent high-profile, star-driven, adult-audience vehicles eroding so quickly after their first weekends ("Primary Colors," for example), neither "Bulworth" nor "The Horse Whisperer" will have an easy time of it in the killer summer market.

"There's no question that nothing in this business comes easy anymore," says Sherak. "The fun is when you overcome those difficulties."

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