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The Big Picture

Coming Again to a Theater Near You

November 07, 2000|Patrick Goldstein

Give Rob Friedman points for candor. When I asked the Paramount Pictures vice chairman if he could cite one example in which a studio had ever successfully re-released a movie that had fizzled in its initial theatrical release, he responded with a blunt one-word answer: "No."

Friedman has a herculean task before him this week: persuading moviegoers to rediscover "Wonder Boys," the Michael Douglas-starring film that reopens Wednesday in nine cities. Paramount has its fingers crossed that the picture will somehow fare better than when it first opened last February and took in only $18.7 million at the box office. But re-releasing an unsuccessful movie, as one studio marketer put it, is like regaining your virginity. Once you've lost it, it's gone forever.

Friedman knows from experience: In 1995, when he was head of marketing at Warner Bros. Pictures, the studio tried to revive "The Little Princess," the much-adored family film that had flopped the first time around. Friedman put together a new campaign and did interviews "with any newspaper that would get on the phone with me." It didn't matter: The movie did just as badly the second time out.

Studio marketing wizards can often turn lemons into lemonade. But once the public makes up its mind about a movie, it's nearly impossible to change it. "In today's world, everything is so much about hits that it's really tough to bring back a movie that didn't work the first time," says "Little Princess" producer Mark Johnson. "You can't get reviews back in the paper. You can't put people back on 'The Today Show.' "

There are re-releases that do work, but they usually involve vintage films that were not only hits the first time around but have an enduring audience appeal, like the "Star Wars" series. The current example is "The Exorcist." The 1973 horror classic has grossed $40 million in the past six weeks, which is almost pure profit for Warner Bros. Pictures, since the studio has only spent $15 million to market the film and prepare it for re-release.

Not every re-release is a Cinderella story. Disney's "Fantasia/2000" was a hit in its Imax theater run this year, but bombed when the studio moved it into regular theaters. Miramax's "Life Is Beautiful" was a smash in its initial run, but foundered when the studio brought it back in a dubbed version.

Does that mean Paramount is throwing good money after bad with "Wonder Boys"? Probably so. The studio's biggest problem is that it hasn't found a fresh way to sell the movie (an ironic, adult comedy set in the world of academia, a tough sell under any circumstances). The film's poster and trailer are top-heavy with "see this movie" critic blurbs, a message that seems hopelessly outdated in an era when studios have tarnished the currency of reviews by using them to sell every dog that hits the multiplexes.

But Paramount isn't giving "Wonder Boys" another shot just to make its investment back or even bolster its Oscar chances. It's practicing the ultimate Hollywood art form: nurturing important personal relationships. After all, if the studio wanted to give a second chance to a film that got rave reviews and was mishandled in its first outing, why not pick "Election," the razor-smart Alexander Payne film that was a box office bust, despite rave reviews, when Paramount released it in April 1999? Two words: Michael Douglas.

Payne is a well-regarded young filmmaker, but he's yet to have a commercial hit. Hollywood weight class: bantamweight.

Douglas is an A-list movie star and standout producer who--and here's the really important part--has a relationship with Paramount studio chief Sherry Lansing that dates back to her first days as a 20th Century Fox executive in the late 1970s. They have collaborated on such hits as "The China Syndrome," "Romancing the Stone," "Fatal Attraction," "Black Rain" and "Face/Off," which was made by Douglas' production company. Hollywood weight class: super-heavyweight. As Douglas modestly put it: "I hope that I've earned some points somewhere down the line."

*

Last April, "Wonder Boys" director Curtis Hanson approached Friedman with the idea of a re-release. By June, the studio had decided to give it a try. Paramount's gesture (and an initial 15-theater release is more of a gesture than a full-scale relaunch) is also a way for the studio to make amends for possibly fumbling the original release. There was a heated debate last fall between Paramount, Hanson and "Wonder Boys" producer Scott Rudin over how--and when--the studio had released the film.

The filmmakers were unhappy with the film's poster, which made Douglas look like a disheveled pothead--an image that, while true to the film, apparently turned off many female moviegoers. The filmmakers also feel the movie would've done better if Paramount had released it in late 1999, in time for Oscar consideration, instead of pushing it back to February 2000.

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