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Big Heart, Big Box Office

The mighty 'Spider-Man' and the plucky 'Greek Wedding' have one thing in common: emotional connections. Hollywood, take note.

September 01, 2002|KENNETH TURAN

The Labor Day weekend traditionally marks the end of the summer, the time when America returns to school and young people, in theory at least, turn their attention to lessons that need to be learned.

Hollywood, however, does things slightly differently. Its Labor Day focus is also on things to be learned, but they are the lessons of the summer past, not the fall and winter to come.

For the hot-weather months are traditionally the studios' biggest season, the source of a sizable chunk of theatrical revenue. And like former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, forever asking passersby, "How'm I doin'?," Hollywood is always looking to see how it did, to see what it can take away from the summer just ended and apply to figuring out what audiences will pay money to see in the future.

In terms of summer 2002, the two films that Hollywood most wants to learn from seem initially to be at the opposite ends of the spectrum. There's the mighty "Spider-Man," which cost the earth and earned it back, and the plucky "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," a mouse that roared despite its modest $5-million budget. But on a deeper level, it can be argued that both films are actually teaching the same lesson, a lesson of the heart.

With its record-setting $120-million opening weekend and a domestic take that's currently more than $400 million, "Spider-Man" set off shock waves throughout Hollywood. "Before 'Spider-Man,' we'd never had a $100-million weekend for a movie," Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, the box office tracking firm, told the Hollywood Reporter. "That was considered the Holy Grail of the box office, and now it's happened."

It's not difficult to imagine the envy that seeped into meetings at competing studios the Monday that figure became official. "Where's our 'Spider-Man?' " aggrieved big shots no doubt demanded of harried underlings. Paradoxically, it's quite possible that the search for the next big thing is looking for love in all the wrong places, taking the wrong lesson from those eye-popping opening days.

If there has been a misunderstanding, it's quite understandable, because "Spider-Man" looks at first blush like the latest example of the changed nature of the movie business, Hollywood's enslavement to the core teenage and early-20s demographic that controls a sizable share of what the studios produce.

For, unlike their fussy parents, these young viewers are ready and willing to go to the movies, and they have the money to make it happen. According to a study by Teenage Research Unlimited reported in Publishers Weekly, last year "American teens spent close to $172 billion, or $104 per teen per week--and that's not counting the other spending that is influenced by teens."

Is it any wonder that studios rush to cater to this affluent market, making movies with teenage protagonists, moving heaven and earth to find kid-friendly comic book properties that have yet to be optioned and hoping to strike the kind of gold that "Batman," "Men in Black" and now "Spider-Man" have struck? Is it really a surprise that one studio head told a prominent director, "We're no longer making movies for an audience that has to be dynamited out of their houses"?

Yet, given how much money "Spider-Man" made in so short a time, it is likely that this film reached further than the movies' youthful core constituency, actually getting to some of that needs-to-be-dynamited demographic. For "Spider-Man" turned out to be that rare comic-book movie that worked a bit on an emotional level, and that could well have made all the difference.

The word in Hollywood was that Sam Raimi got the "Spider-Man" assignment by being the only director to talk to Sony executives not about all the special effects he could muster, but about the emotional quotient of a boy named Peter Parker discovering he had super powers. A concern that paid off for him and for us.

When you talk to viewers who enjoyed "Spider-Man," no one mentions the tedious villain that Willem Dafoe had the misfortune to play, or the way the film all but grinds to a halt in its pro forma second half. What audiences remember, a key to what drew them to the film in such large numbers, is an unlooked-for emotional quotient that, while not exactly in the "Secrets & Lies" category, was still higher than expected.

This comes out first in the sections where a shaky Parker learns through amusing trial and error how to master his wall-climbing, web-slinging powers. These kinds of identifiable, human moments are easy to empathize with but increasingly difficult to find in today's super-extravaganzas.

Better still is the palpable connection stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst make on screen. Their upside-down kiss in the rain has an almost tangible passion to it, a sense of life that, if hardly real, is once again closer than we usually get in this day and age.

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