On Monday morning, April 2, as Hollywood counted the weekend box office receipts, marketing minds all over town fixed upon a single tongue-twisting title, put in the form of a question: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"?
What were they? Where did they come from? And how did a movie with a title like that make $25 million in its opening weekend, an especially impressive figure since it was compiled in large part from children's lower ticket prices?
The No. 1 one movie in America for the last three weeks, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" has already made more money ($72.9 million in grosses and counting) than any independent film in history and threatens to wise-crack its way into the company of such youth market icons as "Star Wars," "Batman" and "E.T."
Based on comic book characters that had already inspired a weekly animated cartoon show, this improbable blockbuster from the distributors of "Nightmare on Elm St." (New Line Cinema) and the makers of "The Cannonball Run" (Golden Harvest Films), is a "live-action" children's adventure story about four oversized turtles touched accidentally with human intelligence who live in the sewers of New York, use martial-arts skills to combat the forces of evil, love pizza and talk like Sean Penn's famously stoned surfer in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."
Played by actors in neoprene, computer-controlled creature suits, the anthropomorphic terrapins call each other "dude," shout "bodacious!" and make bad jokes about current TV shows.
The title itself sounded like a joke to some of the people who made the film. Thomas K. Gray, the 44-year-old chief executive at Golden Harvest Films, which has a total of six employees and releases an average of two to three pictures a year, concedes he was skeptical when a young comedy writer named Bobby Herbeck first approached him with the idea in 1988. "I admittedly had never heard of it," Gray says of the comic book and cartoon show. "I said, 'I'm not going to do this.' "
But Herbeck, who was writing a different film for Gray at the time, persisted and finally persuaded Gray to meet Kim Dawson, a producer trying to make a deal for the live-action rights to the Turtle characters. When Gray had lunch with Dawson, Gray recalls, "We talked about everything under the sun, except the Turtles. And at the end of the meeting, Kim started to pitch the Turtles. I said, 'Forget it, I'm not interested in this."'
As Gray was getting up from the booth to return to the office, Dawson thrust the comic book at him, and the executive opened it up and glanced at a page. "I looked at the comic book," Gray says, "and something snapped. I thought, 'Wait a minute, we can do this. All you have to do is put stunt men in turtle suits, and you could knock this off for a very low budget, and if it doesn't make money here it could make money around the world.' So that's how it got going."
There had been earlier proposals for a movie based on the Turtles, says Mark Freedman, the licensing agent for Turtle creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman. Gary Propper, the manager of the comedian Gallagher, for example, envisioned a movie that would star Gallagher, John Candy and two other comedians as versions of the Turtles. Freedman said no to that idea.
Thanks in large part to Freedman, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were already a budding industry in 1988, when Playmate Toys unleashed a line of Ninja Turtle figures that reinforced the syndicated cartoon show (financed largely by Playmate) that hit the air in late 1987 and was picked up by Group W Broadcasting. By 1989, Turtle tie-ins with cereal brands, fast food chains, K mart, video games and other merchandisers amounted to more than $250 million in sales worldwide, a figure expected to double this year.
"We're much bigger than the movie," says Freedman, 35, the Long Island-based marketing consultant who assumes full responsi bility for Turtlemania and claims to be "the person who created the phenomenon."
Freedman, who once hyped paraphernalia for Saturday morning cartoon characters Alvin and the Chipmunks, was out of work and looking for a job in 1986 when he first heard about the Turtle comic book from a friend. "I thought it was a joke," he says. He learned it was a joke but also real. Laird, now 36, and Eastman, now 27, both residents of Northampton, Mass., had been self-publishing a periodic black-and-white comic book since 1983 which attempted to poke fun at the comic strip tradition of superheroes.
"They couldn't get a job in the comic book industry," Freedman says.
He got them a deal with Archie Comics, which now brings out 500,000 copies of the Turtles book every six weeks. He also set up the arrangement with Playmate that led to the TV show and the ensuing 100-odd product tie-ins.
But a movie? "Our biggest fear was that a movie would look like 'Howard the Duck,' Freedman recalls, referring to the disastrous 1986 adapation by George Lucas and Universal Pictures of another off-center comic book.
"We had to reassure them that we weren't going to screw up this successful thing they had created," says Gray.
Gray quieted Freedman's fears enough to secure an option for Golden Harvest, which turned for financing to an affiliated company, Golden Communications, the Kung Fu cinema factory based in Hong Kong best known for its Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan pictures.
But there was still the all-important matter of finding a U.S. distributor. All of the major studios passed on the opportunity to release "Turtles," including Warner Bros., which had distributed other Golden Harvest films. Most of the leading independent companies passed as well.
Gray says the distributors didn't think a decent film could be made for the kind of money they were talking about. "Turtles" was originally budgeted at $8.2 million, and came in at $10.4 million, about half the cost of an average major studio movie. He says distribution company executives, still cautious in that period between "Howard the Duck" and "Batman," didn't take the time to look at the demographics of Ninja Turtle toys and comic books. And, there was that title.
"If you make something that sounds like 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' and it doesn't work, then I don't think your future's going to be too bright," says Gray.
Executives at New Line Cinema thought otherwise.
"What I saw looked really fun to me," says the New York-based company's president Robert Shaye, who examined Bobby Herbeck's script and a sample reel of the "animatronic" Turtles (actors working inside electronically controlled Turtle suits) created by Jim Henson's London Creature Shop.
Shaye says there was concern at New Line that the film would only appeal to little kids, but they went for it anyway, buying the North American theatrical and home video rights for a figure he puts at "several million" dollars.
Whatever New Line paid, it was a bargain. Industry analysts estimate that if "Turtles" grosses $100 million in the U.S. and Canada, which now seems certain, New Line and Golden Harvest will each earn at least $20 million.
Laird and Eastman aren't giving out figures on what they're pulling down from the burgeoning Turtle industry, but their partnership with Freedman takes a royalty of 3% to 12% on everything with the Turtle name on it.
The movie's box-office figures are being hailed in Hollywood as a significant breakthrough for independents, who are generally at a huge disadvantage when competing with the Big Seven studios for exhibition space on the nation's movie screens.
"If an exhibitor harbored any doubts that an independent can deliver the kind of grosses that you associate with a Warners or a Paramount release, this should change their minds," says Mitchell Goldman, president of distribution for New Line.
New Line, a company that has customarily aimed its release of movies like "Hairspray," "The Hidden" and the gruesome "Nightmare on Elm St." series at specific audiences, changed its strategy for the Turtles movie. "It was harder (to promote) than 'Nightmare on Elm St.,' says Goldman, "because we wanted to go for everybody and that's expensive."
The company had help from movie theater owners who saw the film at an industry convention in February and were sufficiently impressed to agree to extra local promotions. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" opened on 1,956 screens across America on March 30, a day chosen because it coincided with a large number of school holidays.
Goldman says he began to be optimistic after learning the results of two test screenings in early March--not at Saturday matinees but at two colleges, MIT and Arizona State University at Tempe. "We knew that the Turtles were hip because the comic book had started in colleges. But when they turned people away at both those screenings, we knew we were looking at a possible breakthrough movie that was going to cross boundaries and get teen-agers and college kids, as well as smaller kids and their parents."
Nevertheless, no one was quite prepared for that $25-million opening or what followed. "We had an inkling that we had a shot at being something very substantial, but not this substantial," says Shaye.
"We were stunned, along with the rest of the industry," says Gray. "This has changed a lot of minds about what children's movies can do."