When 20th Century Fox counts its blessings this holiday season, it may want to give special thanks to Warner Bros. Warner is the studio that passed on “Home Alone” and “Edward Scissorhands,” the two films that have catapulted Fox to the top of the current box-office heap.
“Home Alone,” the season’s surprise hit, has grossed more than $100 million and is still going strong. “Scissorhands” also has the markings of a winner, drawing the highest per-screen average of any film playing nationwide last week.
Warner, meanwhile, has found only coal in its stocking so far. Its first holiday offering, “The Rookie,” is doing a fast fade after taking in $11 million, and “The Sheltering Sky” is not expected to attract a wide audience. The company’s hopes now rest on “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “Hamlet.”
The box-office momentum will almost certainly shift again when those and other big movies such as Paramount’s “The Godfather, Part III” and Universal’s “Kindergarten Cop” join the holiday fray in the days ahead. But Fox’s success with two projects that were orphaned by a top competitor says a lot about the capricious nature of filmmaking in Hollywood.
“It’s real hard sorting these things out,” said one industry executive who asked not to be identified. “It’s a lot like picking stocks. Basically, you make a lot of mistakes.”
Warner, which had its own surprise blockbuster in last year’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” said “Scissorhands” was presented only as an undeveloped concept and was never seriously considered by the studio. “Home Alone” was dropped after the budget, initially set at $10 million, nearly doubled. The company reasonably maintains that it was impossible to foresee the phenomenal success the film would become.
Even Fox concedes that it viewed “Home Alone” and “Scissorhands” as “second-tier” movies at best, meaning they did not expect them to challenge the season’s biggest films. Fox, however, has clearly had a field day in Warner’s chicken coop, and at a fortuitous time.
The company is under particular pressure to score at the box office this year because of the financial straits of its parent, Australia’s News Corp. (News Corp.'s stock fell Thursday to a five-year low in Australia after a report in the Sydney Morning Herald said the firm had fallen almost a week behind a self-imposed timetable for rescheduling almost $6.9 billion of debt.) Thus far, studio chief Joe Roth has delivered, justifying the faith that Fox Inc. Chairman Barry Diller placed in him when he was chosen to revive the studio’s sagging fortunes last year. Moreover, “Home Alone,” at $18.2 million, and “Scissorhands,” at $22 million, were bargains compared to the cost of many holiday movies.
Roth, who gave the go-ahead to both films, attributes his success to a run of good luck. (Fox also released the not-so-lucky “Predator II,” a box-office dud.) But others say “Home Alone” and “Scissorhands” are proof of Roth’s intuitive feel for what sells. Moreover, Fox’s marketing staff is given credit for pulling off inventive sales campaigns.
Director Tim Burton had just completed “Beetlejuice” and was about to embark on the phenomenal “Batman” when he first presented the idea for “Edward Scissorhands” to Warner Bros. executives in 1988, according to his agent, Mike Simpson of the William Morris Agency.
Burton had a “first look” deal with Warner at the time. But lower-level executives at the Burbank studio passed on the opportunity to develop “Scissorhands.” Industry executives speculate that the notion of a shear-handed misfit in suburbia might simply have been too bizarre for Warner’s tastes.
Within a few weeks, it had landed at Fox under then-production chief Scott Rudin. His successor, Roger Birnbaum, inherited the project and made a point of promoting it when Roth was named studio chairman in August, 1989.
“Scissorhands” was one of a dozen scripts Roth took on a trip to Europe last year at Birnbaum’s suggestion. Another was something called “58 Minutes,” which would become the basis for another Fox hit, “Die Hard II.”
Roth said “Scissorhands” struck him as something unique and marketable. “It had the underpinnings of a lot of other stories I respond to, such as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and the whole Frankenstein myth,” Roth said. “I thought it would be different.”
Because of its bizarre theme, “Scissorhands” was always viewed as a tough sell. But a handful of previews in various California cities persuaded Fox that it had a winner, particularly with teen-agers. Fox marketing chief Tom Sherak and his staff developed a campaign that focused on the fable-like nature of the film.
“At first we weren’t sure whether to show the hands,” Sherak said. “We worried that people would think it was a horror movie. We also made the ads as light and people-friendly as we could.”
Fox premiered “Scissorhands” in New York and Los Angeles, using 70-millimeter prints that showcased its stunning visuals, before opening it nationwide on Dec. 14. Other cities were teased with a campaign that revolved around the tagline, “Edward Is Coming.” In several locales, buses bore pictures of his topiary handiwork.
“This was our way of trying to break through the (holiday) clutter,” Sherak said. “Sometimes these things work.”
“Home Alone,” the implausible story of a child accidentally left behind when his parents go on vacation, came to Fox in a much different way. Like many Christmas presents, it was already nicely bundled up and ready to be opened.
The film had been developed by Warner Bros. and was set to begin production in just three weeks when the studio suddenly dropped it last February. Warner was upset over a $2.5-million budget increase, according to one press account. Others in Hollywood say the budget had actually gone as much as $11 million over original projections.
John Hughes, the movie’s writer and producer, had dined with Roth just a month earlier, and Roth had casually advised Hughes to call him if any problems developed. When Hughes called, Roth immediately offered “Home Alone” a home at Fox.
Fox realized its gamble had paid off in September, when the film swept away test audiences. The studio subsequently aimed its theatrical trailers and television commercials at youngsters who might be drawn to the notion of having a house all to themselves.
Initial plans called for the film to open on Nov. 21, the day before Thanksgiving. Fearing competition from Disney’s “Three Men and a Little Lady,” however, the studio moved the opening up a week and instead went head-to-head with MGM/UA’s “Rocky V.” It was a knockout of legendary proportions, with “Home Alone” nearly doubling “Rocky’s” initial returns.
“Home Alone” made $27.3 million in its first week, compared to first-week grosses of $15.9 million for “Pretty Woman” and $19.8 million for “Ghost,” the year’s two most successful films. Roth was particularly pleased when reports showed that people who had attended the previews were returning, and bringing their friends.
One studio executive likened “Home Alone” to a rocket that can only be admired as it ascends, since it can never be caught. Fox may want to take a particularly close look, since the competition is about to heat up dramatically. But for now the view is pretty good.
“When you’re up, you enjoy it, because you don’t stay up forever,” Sherak observed.
BOX-OFFICE RANKINGS Figures are as of Dec. 6
Avg. per Film and distributor Days screen Total revenue 1. Home Alone (20th Century 31 $5,760 $99,307,437 Fox) 2. Look Who’s Talking Too 3 5,140 $8,100,640 (Tri-Star) 3. Edward Scissorhands (Fox) 10 6,183 $6,579,461 4. Dances With Wolves 38 3,739 $38,377,730 (Orion) 5. Misery (Columbia) 17 3,074 $26,107,348 6. Mermaids (Orion) 3 3,820 $3,514,678 7. The Rookie (Warner Bros.) 10 1,887 $10,944,102 8. Three Men and a Little 26 2,116 $39,822,708 Lady (Buena Vista) 9. Havana (Universal) 5 2,640 $2,284,044 10. Predator 2 (Fox) 26 898 $25,026,577
Source: Daily Variety