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TALK ABOUT A ‘DOG’ WORTH SPEAKING UP FOR

Word of mouth, a close cousin to the kiss of death, is an elusive, intangible, immeasurable component of the movie industry. Like carbon monoxide gas, it is weightless, colorless and usually odorless, but its silent punch can be lethal.

Not by accident did early witnesses squeeze their noses--as if the memory might waft into their nostrils--when asked for their opinion of “Howard the Duck.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 15, 1987 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 15, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 2 Column 3 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
In a Calendar article Thursday on the Swedish film “My Life as a Dog,” Skouras Pictures executive Jeff Lipsky’s first name was misspelled.

But word of mouth is not by nature a killer. It has performed as many miracles as executions, saved a good film for each bad one it has destroyed.

Take, for example, “My Life as a Dog"--a movie that would seem to have more going against it than its title.

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“My Life” is a two-year-old subtitled Swedish film that arrives in the States courtesy of Skouras Pictures, without the benefit of a known star or revered director, without the endorsement of major film festival victories, and with newspaper ads that can barely be located among the sequoias planted by the major studios.

It is nonetheless a hit.

As of Monday, “My Life as a Dog” had grossed $1.3 million while playing for three months on fewer than 40 screens nationwide and, if the long lines outside the Music Hall Theater in Beverly Hills mean anything, the film will be around for a while.

“It’s an open-ended engagement, but we’ve been told it will run through the summer and into the fall,” said Jess Lipsky, president of Skouras’ movie division. “In New York, we see no end to the run at all.”

“My Life,” an occasionally sad, more often hilarious account of the adventures of an irresistibly charming 12-year-old boy in 1950s Sweden, is not likely to break the Music Hall record of “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” That clunkily cute South African farce played the Music Hall for 18 months, disproving forever the myth that art-house patrons are more sophisticated than their brethren hanging out at the drive-ins.

But “My Life” represents the biggest potential windfall in the young life of Skouras Pictures, which owns all U.S. rights to it, and it gives hope for a resurgence in enthusiasm for foreign-language films in the United States.

With both subtitles and dubbed sound tracks considered poison in the videocassette market, competition for the American rights to foreign-language films, especially those without pedigree, has declined in recent years. Distributors count on video sales to save theatrical disasters, but for foreign-language films, video is a disaster going in.

Lipsky, who came to Skouras after stints with both New Yorker Films and the Samuel Goldwyn Co., believes that the limited audience for subtitled films is a “mental block on the part of local marketing (people) for the home video companies. They perceive no audience for these titles, so they don’t push them,” he said.

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Subtitles do present a major problem for the video industry. It is hard enough to read them in theaters, where the heads of other viewers sprout into the frame and where the subtitles themselves often disappear into the backdrop. At home, you may have to be fluent in the language to know what’s going on.

However, Lipsky ranks video far down on his list of reasons why foreign-language and specialty films have suffered recently in the American market. More relevant, he said, are such factors as the current hyperpatriotic “buy American” mood and the declining influence of certain film critics.

Lipsky said that six years ago reviews by New York Times film critic Vincent Canby could make or break foreign-language films in New York, but that is no longer true.

“Canby is still my favorite critic, but the irony is that of the last five (foreign-language) films he reviewed, he did not like three and they went on to do great business. The two he did like have not done too well.”

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One of those films Canby didn’t like was “My Life as a Dog.” He reviewed it a month before it opened, Lipsky said, but filmgoers found it anyway.

The New York reviews still set the tone for foreign-language films in their visits to other cities, and Canby’s judgment remains the view from Olympus. Also, readers of the New York Times in other parts of the country used to be reinforced in their selections by movie ads appearing in the paper, but those ads no longer appear in editions published outside New York.

Lipsky said the success of syndicated critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert has inadvertently hurt the specialty films, as well. Siskel and Ebert were first syndicated nationally by PBS, then by the Tribune Co. and now by Walt Disney.

“When they were on PBS, they had an immediate impact on specialty films,” said Lipsky, who marketed the hugely successful “My Dinner With Andre” when he was with New Yorker Films. “The weekend after they reviewed ‘Andre’ (both gave thumbs up, Ebert calling it the best movie of the year), the grosses increased 300%. There is no question they were the single most important element in the turnaround of that film.”

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Now that Siskel and Ebert are syndicated before a broader audience, they are necessarily obliged to review fewer specialty films. Lipsky said the Chicago-based critics’ replacements on PBS--first Jeffrey Lyons and Neil Gabler, now Lyons and Michael Medved--"have no impact (on specialty films) whatsoever.”

Critics still provide the first word on specialty films, and though the influence of some has waned, the number of those to whom art-house patrons will listen has grown. Since their views are often the only ones readily available, local newspaper critics--and (swallow hard here) movie critics on local television stations--have tremendous impact on opening business.

But for both mainstream commercial movies and specialty films, box-office success ultimately depends on good word of mouth--friends talking to friends (“Go see ‘Top Gun,’ dude, it’s rad”). The difference is that with mainstream films, the studios can muster enough money and marketing savvy to con large numbers of people into thinking a movie is better than it is (otherwise, explain the success of “Mannequin”).

When you’ve got a Swedish film titled “My Life as a Dog,” about a boy who wishes he were a dog, it had better be good. And it is!

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Take my word for it.


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