Remember the scene in "Prizzi's Honor" where Jack Nicholson as a New York hit man walks into an elegant Los Angeles bar for a romantic meeting with Kathleen Turner wearing a canary yellow sports coat and a black turtleneck sweater?
Nicholson's ensemble (thug chic?) drew howls of laughter from paying customers wherever the movie was shown. But Anthony Thomopoulos, then head of the entertainment division of ABC, which financed the theatrical feature, said he saw "Prizzi's Honor" about four times before it opened and never realized that scene was funny.
"I never got it; I never saw the humor in it until the first time we showed the movie to an audience," said Thomopoulos, now chairman of United Artists Pictures and a man of apparent sartorial taste. "The laugh was totally unexpected to me, and it was a terrific lesson."
The lesson was formalized as a Hollywood maxim--"Nobody knows anything!"--in screenwriter William Goldman's book "Adventures in the Screen Trade." Goldman wasn't referring to the IQs of studio production executives, but to the general inability of everyone to know how anything will play for audiences until audiences see it.
You'll have better luck fielding an all-Sasquatch basketball team than a studio production executive who will admit he or she cannot divine the success of proposed projects. But occasionally, insecurities surface, as they did at one of the networks (ABC, in fact, while Thomopoulos was president of the entertainment division) when it was revealed a few years ago that a psychic was among its paid consultants.
During the last decade--roughly dating from the box-office success of "Star Wars"--studio executives were on the same hunt, trying to make movies that would convince adolescents to see each one 10 times.
Those 14-year-olds are in their 20s now, presumably Yoda-proof, and their parents are celebrating their own freedom by returning to theaters. The whole demographic bulge has worked its way up the actuarial chart a couple of notches and--imperceptible as the difference may be to critics--movies are getting more sophisticated.
"We are trying to slant movies a little more toward young adults (than teen-agers)," said Thomopoulos, whose first film as UA chief has been the modest Diane Keaton hit "Baby Boom." " 'We are finding through our exit polls on 'Baby Boom' that the movie appeals to an older group, (age) 25-plus."
Thomopoulos doesn't want to dwell on the age issue. In the unstable world of studio management, defining target audiences is like holding a resignation to your head and signing it. The truth is that studios can no longer count on teen-agers to hold them up. They can no longer aim every one of their movies at that audience and expect three or four of them to go through the roof.
Video and cable have complicated the lives of the leaders in both television and film industries. Audiences are more fragmented, less dependable. Consequently, there is less talk about concepts ("It's 'High Noon' in outer space") and more concentration on story.
Eighteen months ago, UA executives were talking about making "high-concept films that can be made with fiscal responsibility." Thomopoulos now talks about getting a balanced slate of films.
"The whole thrust of both (TV and film) is the story," Thomopoulos said. "There is incredible competition right now for good stories, for good writers. We have to come up with the best written words we can. If we get the right story, we attract the best people."
"Baby Boom" is a case in point, he said. Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers' script, about a career woman whose priorities are rearranged by her inheritance of an orphaned baby, was so strong he was able to attract Keaton as its star. The movie was released slowly because of its appeal to older moviegoers, but it is doing well.
Last weekend, "Baby Boom" trailed only "Running Man," "Fatal Attraction" and "Hello Again" on the box-office chart, despite being in from 300 to 800 fewer theaters. The film has grossed more than $16 million.
"I think we caught (a trend) with 'Baby Boom,' " said the 49-year-old Thomopoulos, whose four children include one daughter (by his first wife) in her 20s and another (by his current wife, Christine Ferrare) under 20 months. "There is a little re-establishment of values. People are asking themselves what's important in life: 'Is the rat race the ultimate, or is it family and kids?' "
Thomopoulos keeps a copy of a book about United Artists' history in his office and said he is often humbled by its contents.
"There's a hell of a heritage here to deal with," he said, flipping through the history of the company originally formed by Mary Pickford, D. W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. "I sit here sometimes at night and think about the wonderful films that have come out of this company. What a challenge to say, 'I want to add something to that library. I want to make some pictures that belong in that book.' "
The new UA should have an asterisk next to the name. The old UA was brought down by Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate"; the new one emerged from the various sales and mergers of MGM and UA since.
As the first head of the new UA, Thomopoulos inherited one major asset--the apparently endless James Bond series. Last summer's "The Living Daylights," which introduced Timothy Dalton as the new Bond, was the first release for the new UA. Thomopoulos said the next Bond movie, still untitled, is being developed and will be released in the summer of '89.
Eventually, UA will have from eight to 10 films a year, Thomopoulos said. MGM, which shares the same distribution operation, will also release that many films.
Thomopoulos said UA will release six or eight movies in 1988, beginning with "Bright Lights, Big City," adapted from Jay McInerney's novel about a young magazine writer on the social fast track in New York City.
Among other upcoming UA films are: "Sundown," a psychological thriller starring Debra Winger and Tom Berenger and directed by Costa-Gavras; "Rikky and Pete," a comedy by the Australian team who made last year's "Malcolm," and "Child's Play," a "smart" horror film being directed by Tom Holland.
Thomopoulos said "Rainman," to star Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, is still expected to be finished next year. A director is currently being sought. He also has Cruise attached to "Innocent Millionaire," a romantic drama to be written and directed by Peter Weir ("Witness").
In the meantime, Thomopoulos said he's keeping an open mind about the stories being pitched to him. He said you can't rule anything out on subject alone and recalls the success he had on a personal project even before he became a network executive in the early '70s.
"I had this picture once that everybody in the world turned down. The script was commissioned as a movie of the week for ABC, which ABC on the West Coast turned down. I went to NBC and CBS on the West Coast. They said no. I went back to the networks in New York. They turned it down.
"Finally, I took this (CBS) executive to lunch as a last gasp in New York. I said, 'I have great passion for this project. It has to be done.' He said, 'What is it?' I gave him the script and he called me back that afternoon and said, 'I love this.' "
The project became a two-hour CBS movie titled "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" and it won eight Emmy awards.
"It may be a simplistic philosophy," Thomopoulos said, "but the thrust of both (TV and film) is the story. A good story is a good story; it's just how it's executed."