Times Staff Writer

After an unprecedented 14-month marathon run in Beverly Hills’ Music Hall Theatre, Jamie Uys’ African slapstick oddity “The Gods Must Be Crazy” is finally coming to a theater near you.

Twentieth Century Fox distribution chief Tom Sherak said Thursday that “Gods,” which last week eclipsed “La Cage aux Folles” as America’s highest-grossing foreign film, will open in 15 additional theaters in the Los Angeles area Sept. 27. It will continue at the Music Hall (where it has been playing so long the marquee letters had to be replaced once) until Oct. 15.

“The Gods Must Be Crazy” must be driving major studio executives crazy. They spend millions each year promoting films that are backed by more research than saccharine (pity those lab rats forced to sit through “Weird Science”), then along comes this goofy thigh-slapper to rake off $22 million in the United States.

The figure is all the more remarkable when you consider how few prints Fox has had in circulation. Sherak says “Gods” will be playing in nearly 200 theaters by Sept. 27, but through most of its productive run there were fewer than 100 prints in theaters.

The movie, about a tribe of communal Kalahari bushmen who come to worship and fear a 16-ounce Coke bottle tossed into their midst from a passing airplane, was completed in the late ‘70s and was a big hit abroad before the small U.S. distributor Jensen-Farley picked it up for release here.


Jensen-Farley went out of business at about that time, Sherak says, and Fox’s classics division decided to give “Gods” one more try even though it “dropped dead” in its test runs.

Critics--some turned off by its rickety production values, others turned on by its gamboling spirit--gave “Gods” wildly mixed notices, but here, at least, that unpredictable marketing tool, word of mouth, took over and “Gods” was suddenly hotter than Spago’s duck prosciutto pizza.

“It’s magic,” says “Gods” producer Jerald Joffe. “There is no other word for it. It just has that effect on people.”

“In every sense, it’s a word-of-mouth movie,” Sherak says. “It doesn’t matter how much you spend or don’t spend on it, it does the same business week after week.”

“Gods” is a curious film, but in one respect, it’s predictably Hollywood. Its $80 million in worldwide grosses (it cost less than $5 million to make) is the kind of success that spells S-E-Q-U-E-L, and Uys is hard . . . or fast . . . or somehow at work on “Gods 2" right now.

HOPE ETERNAL: It’s a strain for a full-grown person to feel optimistic about movies at the tail end of summer, after being Ramboed, Goonied and Fletched to the point where you look for art in “The Return of the Living Dead.”

But there is cause for hope, in the form of the small companies that are forming and even prospering by acquiring and distributing foreign and independently made mature-theme movies that the major studios no longer seem interested in.

The reigning model is Island Alive, which has had enormous success in the last two years with such films as “Choose Me,” “El Norte” and “Stop Making Sense.” The Samuel Goldwyn Co., while having its best success with the toddler-targeted “Care Bears Movie,” handled last year’s critics’ favorite “Stranger Than Paradise” and the current British drama “Dance With a Stranger.”

There are other small companies competing for the same material, and with the phasing out of most of the major studio classics divisions, more are sure to come.

“People are looking for niches to exploit in the film business,” says one executive, who has worked for both a major studio and a small specialty distribution company. “The niche that exists right now is specialized, quality-oriented film.”

“The audience for ‘relationship stories’ that appeal to older moviegoers is out there,” says Nathan Sassover, a partner in the newly formed Greentree Entertainment Group. “It doesn’t disappear when the majors retrench.”

Greentree gets its feet wet in the specialty waters today, with the opening of “Fatal Attraction,” a Canadian-made psychodrama starring Sally Kellerman (see review on Page 13). The movie is being opened in seven Los Angeles-area theaters (“to create some heat and buzz for it,” says Sassover) and will follow in other major markets until there are 25 to 30 prints in circulation.

The company will release two more films this fall, gingerly hand-delivering them with the same market-by-market strategy. The two German-made films are “Spring Symphony,” a biographical story about pianist Clara Wieck (played by Nastassja Kinski), and “Edith’s Diary,” adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel.

Sassover says Greentree’s plan is to acquire four to six films each year, with funds put up by 10 to 20 private investors each year. They will only pick up films that are at least 80% completed, Sassover says.

“It’s in the development and production of films where you have the greatest risks,” he says. “Where we come in, your money has far more purchasing power.”

Sassover, who owns a company that produces scores for films and TV programs, and partner Edgar N. Greenebaum Jr., the financial architect of Greentree, say they are selling their services (which include consultant work by marketing and distribution people with major studio backgrounds) as “major studio skills without the bureaucracy.”

Sassover says Greentree is looking for films that are adult-themed (“for ‘The Big Chill’ generation”), but not so esoteric they end up with the art house label, which automatically limits the audience.

Everybody wants the same movies, of course--those little gems that are not quite commercial enough for a major studio push, but just right for “special delivery.” He says with the majors’ classic divisions pulling back, there may be enough to go around.

“There is a lot of competition for B movies too,” Sassover says. “I’d rather be in this realm than that one.”