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Box-Office Theory Sinks With 'Titanic'

Commentary: Disaster epic, along with meteoric showing of 'Deep Impact,' shows it's no longer true that a film has to appeal to young males to be a smash.

June 26, 1998|TOM STEMPEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When films like those were successful, they were assumed by the studios to be, in William Goldman's wonderful phrase, "nonrecurring phenomena." The phenomena have been regularly recurring: "Ghost" (1990), "Pretty Woman" (1990), "Fried Green Tomatoes" (1991), "The Bodyguard" (1993), "While You Were Sleeping" (1995) and "First Wives Club" (1996).

Another reason studios looked down on "chick flicks" was the assumption that male action pictures, with minimal dialogue, would play better in the overseas market. Not necessarily true. "Indecent Proposal" made $106 million at the U.S. box office, but $150 million internationally. "Sense and Sensibility" made $42 million in the U.S. and $90 million internationally. (And though both were British films, "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "The Full Monty" were pushed to high grosses by female audiences.) "Titanic," which has doubled its American gross internationally, is simply the culmination of the trend.

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About the only reviewer who sensed the connection "Deep Impact" had to all of this was, appropriately enough, a woman. Lisa Schwarzbaum, writing in Entertainment Weekly, said, "It's . . . the womanly action-thriller, a new breed of summertime entertainment, in which scenes of speed, suspense, frantic keyboard punching and computer-generated destruction serve as testosterone infusions between the nurturing of relationships!" The action elements of the film were used in the conventional promotion for the film (the only trailer I saw for the film that emphasized the relationships appeared only a week before the film opened), which was what Hollywood assumed would create the $30-million opening.

This attitude continued after the film opened, as in this quote from an anonymous Paramount executive (presumably a man) that appeared the following week (May 22) in Entertainment Weekly: "You really want to know what opened the movie? The wave [that wipes out New York City]. We put it in the trailer and all the TV spots. That's the only reason it opened. We all know it." (See what I mean about irritated?) The person is assuming that the wave shot was like the exploding White House shot in the "Independence Day" trailers, but the former does not have the resonance of the latter (except perhaps for confirmed New York haters).

What does have resonance for moviegoers in "Deep Impact" are the relationships, and my guess is that this was only apparent when the film was finally seen by paying audiences, just as the way audiences focused on the relationships in "Titanic" only became clear when the film was released. This is why "Deep Impact" has continued to gross better than expected (Entertainment Weekly eventually called it "The Little Event Movie That Could"--only in Hollywood would an $80-million movie be called "little").

Part of the reason that "Titanic" and "Deep Impact" have worked, and worked for female audiences, is that both films take their relationships seriously. David Denby, film critic for New York magazine, wrote an essay that appeared in the New Yorker (April 6) in which he took American movies to task for not giving their audiences emotion. He complained that "even to speak of movie emotion in such terms is now extremely awkward. In so many Hollywood movies nothing much is at stake."

He also criticized the way cynical irony had taken over not only the films but the marketing of the films: "Big movies are now spoofs without a target; they draw on a generalized facetiousness. Corporate irony, which ridicules the very thing that it is selling--and ridicules the act of selling, too--is the deadliest weapon ever leveled against artistic seriousness (including comic seriousness)."

One can see what he is talking about in regard to corporate irony in the quote from the Paramount executive, but it is not surprising that Denby does not mention "Titanic" at all in his essay, because it would invalidate much of what he says, which was true of American films a year ago. The seriousness with which a lot of its audience took "Titanic" changed the game, and "Deep Impact" is the beneficiary of that change.

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The director of "Deep Impact" was a woman, Mimi Leder. (Full disclosure time: Leder was a student of mine in the Radio-Television-Cinema Department at Los Angeles City College in the early '70s. While I would like to claim we taught her everything she knows, we didn't. The talent, film sense and drive are all hers.) What Leder brings to "Deep Impact" is the seriousness about character that distinguishes her extraordinary Emmy-winning work on "China Beach" and "ER."

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