Clint Eastwood is among the few exceptions to that show business rule.
At a time when movie studios and even their specialized film divisions are putting excessive pressure on all movies to become mainstream (meaning: often lowbrow) home runs, Eastwood has been able to deliver critical and commercial success simultaneously.
Like Steven Soderbergh, Peter Jackson and Joel and Ethan Coen, Eastwood has become an art-house director for the masses. Where most movies from big-name directors tend to open in every major city and then slowly fade, Eastwood's films tend to premiere in only a handful of theaters and then storm through the rest of the nation weeks later (in what the industry calls a "platform release"), usually riding a wave of word-of-mouth support.
"He's just unbelievable that way," says Adam Fogelson, the marketing chief for Universal, which is releasing Eastwood's latest film, " Changeling," on Friday.
"He has seemingly created a personal relationship between himself and the audience," says producer Brian Grazer, who is collaborating with Eastwood for the first time on "Changeling." "If a studio sticks with his movie, it plays for a long time. He just has gathered so much goodwill with the audience over his career."
"Changeling" offers an unusual test of Eastwood's appeal. Like his best picture Oscar-winning "Million Dollar Baby" in 2004 and "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima" in 2006, "Changeling" is hardly a feel-good story, and arrives as difficult films, even those with huge stars ( Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio's "Body of Lies" being a perfect example), are struggling to perform at the box office.
Based on a true case and written by J. Michael Straczynski, "Changeling" chronicles how Los Angeles police handled the 1920s abduction of a 9-year-old boy from his single mother ( Angelina Jolie), falsely telling her that a child they found five months later was actually her missing son.
"Clint is drawn to the grittier real-life stories," says his longtime producer, Robert Lorenz. "And they don't always turn out well. But this film is also hopeful."
In crafting the film's release strategy, Universal is mirroring the model of "Mystic River," which, despite its equally troubling story line, was among Eastwood's best-reviewed and most commercially successful directorial efforts.
Because Eastwood works exceedingly fast (he is now finishing "Gran Torino," which he shot this summer, for a December release by Warner Bros.), he was able to take "Changeling" to this May's Cannes Film Festival. It was at that same prestigious festival that audiences first saw "Mystic River" five years earlier.
"It seemed like a good spot to get the film out there and Clint had been pleased with what had happened with 'Mystic River.' It gave people a chance to see it early, and it allowed us to get some positive buzz out there among cineastes," Lorenz says of the benefit the festival brought "Changeling."
With a star of Jolie's caliber in the film's lead ( Reese Witherspoon and Hilary Swank campaigned for the part), the filmmakers and Universal discussed releasing "Changeling" wide immediately, as DreamWorks and Paramount did with "Flags of Our Fathers," in the hopes that Jolie would make the film an event.
"Flags of Our Fathers," which had no big stars, premiered in nearly 1,900 theaters and eventually moved into almost 2,400 locations. But it only grossed $33.6 million domestically.
When Warner Bros. released "Mystic River," on the other hand, the studio took the film to only 13 theaters in its first weekend. A week later, Warner Bros. broadened its "Mystic River" release to almost 1,500 locations. Propelled by rave reviews, "Mystic River" grossed more than $90 million domestically, and respectively won Sean Penn and Tim Robbins the actor and supporting actor Oscars.
Universal intends to bring "Changeling" to 15 theaters in nine different markets this weekend, and immediately expand the film's national release the following week, with the movie playing in between 1,800 and 1,900 theaters.
Because the film will first be available in only a few theaters, its early adopters will theoretically be serious movie fans, who will recommend the film to their friends. "The kind of people who fight to get those first tickets can become great advocates for the film," Fogelson says.
But even with the Cannes stamp of approval and some early favorable (but not overwhelmingly glowing) reviews, Universal also is trying to position the film as a riveting drama.
While a trailer for the movie ( www.changelingmovie.net) trumpets Eastwood's involvement, it spotlights the film's scarier elements. "It is certainly a film of high quality," Fogelson says. "But there is also a commercial genre component to this story -- it's a mystery thriller."
Lorenz says that Eastwood's fans tend not to storm the multiplex on opening weekends, so it's essential that the film build slowly.
"Our audience is not 18-to-25-year-olds," he says. "They are not clamoring to see the film on its opening weekend."
Horn is a Times staff writer.