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Anatomy of a Surprise Blockbuster

This was supposed to be the Christmas season when adult films took center stage. But along came Kevin, an 8-year-old who screams “Holy cow!” and karate chops his way across movie screens shouting “Yes!”

Suddenly everything changed.

Kevin is the kid in 20th Century Fox’s raging hit, “Home Alone,” which has taken the movie industry by surprise and upstaged some of the season’s biggest pictures, starting with “Rocky V.” Many in the industry are predicting that “Home Alone” will go right on shaking things up as the more adult-oriented pictures are released in coming weeks.

“Home Alone,” in which young Kevin (10-year-old Macaulay Culkin) terrorizes a pair of bumbling burglars who show up after his vacationing parents have inadvertently left him behind, sold an astounding $68.2 million worth of tickets in its first 19 days of release. Business has been brisk even on weeknights.

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Last weekend, the studio increased the number of screens by 82; this weekend 400 more were added. The total is now more than 1,700 nationally (by contrast, “Rocky V” opened on about 2,053 screens). The way he’s going, Kevin may have enough clout left by Christmas to keep “The Godfather, Part III” from muscling in at the box office.

“It is a David in a ‘David and Goliath’ story,” says Fox marketing chief Tom Sherak. “Right from the very beginning, this has been perceived as nothing but a little movie. A lot of newspapers didn’t even want to write about it. They told us, ‘Come back to us after the movie opens.’

“Nobody can predict movies that turn out as well as ‘Home Alone.’ You can believe in the movie and feel you have a good movie. But these kinds of pictures come along rarely. We’re flying at 38,000 feet and we don’t want to come in for a landing.”

The success of the film, directed by Chris Columbus for writer-producer John Hughes, can’t be attributed merely to striking a chord with the public. A savvy marketing campaign positioned the movie in the right place at the right time.

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Fox only had the chance to get its hands on the property because Warner Bros. pulled the plug on the project last February just before it went into production.

Hughes, speaking from the Chicago set of his currently shooting “Curley Sue,” which Warners will distribute, says the $16 million-$17 million budget for “Home Alone” was too high for Warners’ tastes.

So Hughes took the movie to Fox, where the former president of his Hughes Entertainment Co., Tom Jacobson, was working as executive vice president of production. Fox studio chairman Joe Roth and production president Roger Birnbaum quickly green-lighted the movie.

Sherak recalls that “Hughes and Columbus first showed us the movie in September with an audience. We came out of that theater and said to ourselves, ‘Holy cow! This could be a big movie.’

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“Once we found that out, and because of the theme, we figured it would be a Christmas movie. But we knew that we didn’t have stars, and if it didn’t perform at Thanksgiving, it would be out of the theaters before Christmas, to make room for the slew of holiday pictures.”

Sherak says Fox originally settled on a Nov. 21 opening because it would be the opening for MGM/UA’s “Rocky V” and “Valkenvania,” a Chevy Chase starrer from Warners. “We believed there would be enough room in the marketplace (between those two movies) for us to get a shot.”

“Rocky V,” however, was moved up to Nov. 16 and “Valkenvania” was held until next year. Nov. 21 was suddenly clear.

Then, according to Sherak, executives at Disney decided to move their Christmas release, “Three Men and a Little Lady,” from its scheduled opening date of Dec. 21 to Nov. 21.

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The decision sent Fox’s executives back into the huddle.

“We said to ourselves that to open it on the same day as this monster movie, which was a sequel and which appealed to largely the same audience as our movie, was a mistake. So we decided that even though it was five days too early (for what is generally considered to be the start of the Christmas movie season), we’d open on Nov. 16, against ‘Rocky.’ We wanted to give ‘Home Alone’ a running start against ‘Three Men.’ ”

Even with a jump, however, the starless “Home Alone” needed word of mouth. Hughes rushed editing in time for Fox to sneak the picture in 1,000 theaters on the Saturday before the opening day, advertised with TV buys.

“The word of mouth started and the picture opened a week later,” Sherak says. “It became a hot movie and people were talking about it. Five percent of the first week’s audience were repeats from the sneaks audiences (from the week before).”

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Sherak predicts that “Home Alone” will “hold through Christmas” at or near the top of the box-office charts.

Hughes figures that the movie is popular because “it’s warm and funny. Warm and funny is sort of becoming scarce in the real world. Violence is taking over.”

He thinks there may be a sequel, perhaps “Alone, Again.”

“I have more things I could do with Kevin’s character,” he says. “There’s room to expand the character. There’s room for another chapter. I think everyone wants to make it.”

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