‘Green Tomatoes’: Why a Little Film Bloomed : Movies: Film starts slowly at the box office but word of mouth, themes, strong cast ignite interest in the $11-million work.


When “Fried Green Tomatoes” opened to mixed reviews in the last week of 1991, the film seemed destined to be lost amid the higher profile movies also debuting that week--Barbra Streisand’s “The Prince of Tides,” Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” and Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon,” not to mention such on-going hits as “Hook,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Father of the Bride.”

But since its opening on only five screens nationally, interest in “Fried Green Tomatoes” has ignited.

“There is a strong word of mouth on this movie,” said John Krier, the owner of Exhibitor Relations Co., Inc., a firm that tracks box-office data. “When they like it in the smaller towns, that’s a sure sign it’s going to be a success.”

For seven weeks, the film’s distributor, Universal Pictures, has systematically expanded the number of theaters where “Fried Green Tomatoes” is showing, to the current 1,229 screens. That was not the typical approach in a business where hit movies, such as “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” or “Medicine Man,” this past weekend’s box-office leader, typically open “wide,” in more than a thousand theaters.


In the weekend just ended, “Fried Green Tomatoes” sold an estimated $6.1 million worth of tickets, enough business to keep it third or fourth in the nation, based on preliminary figures, down from second a week ago. But its drop in business was minimal--estimated by sources at under 10%--compared to the drop-off of 20% or better among other continuing films.

The box-office gross of $25.4 million to date is not bad for a film that cost $11 million to produce, which is low by major studio standards. With word of mouth still ripe, and potential Oscar nominations in the wings, some feel this batch of tomatoes has only begun to start sizzling at the box office.

“The whole thing is such a turnaround from last September,” recalled the film’s director, Jon Avnet, who made his feature film directing debut with “Tomatoes.” September was the month when several newspapers published lists of what movies were coming out for Christmas.

“I would look down those lists and see the other titles, and I would think: It’s such a long shot, how is anyone going to even know about it?”

One reason suggested by some in the industry for the popularity of “Fried Green Tomatoes” is a bigger-than-expected market for “women’s” films.

“At least half the movies in the current Top 10 are those that hold a special appeal to women,” noted one theater chain executive. And among video rentals, the arrival in video stores of “Thelma & Louise,” a film about female rebellion against men, knocked the macho action picture “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” out of first place.

In addition to “Fried Green Tomatoes,” among the movies in last week’s Top 10 were: “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” which touches on fears of child safety; “The Father of the Bride,” about the comical preparations for a marriage; the love story “The Prince of Tides”; “Shining Through,” a melodrama involving a female spy; and “Beauty and the Beast,” an animated love story with a feminist twist.

Yet, all these films have moved beyond the original perceptions to become broader-appealing hits. Universal Pictures executives say this pattern has been true for “Fried Green Tomatoes,” which initially was perceived in the industry as a movie appealing to women, as well as an older audience.

One of the film’s producers, Norman Lear, said the perception was based on the fact that the cast is led by two Oscar winners for best actress, who do not conform to Hollywood’s glamorized view of leading ladies--the veteran actress Jessica Tandy (“Driving Miss Daisy”) and Kathy Bates (“Misery”). And the film also stars two lesser-known, younger actresses, Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker.

Director Avnet, who was the producer of the commercially successful Tom Cruise hit “Risky Business,” said he knew from the beginning that “Fried Green Tomatoes” would be different and a tough sell.

“A plot summary of the story would never do this story any justice,” he said. It didn’t, when he first took the film to Universal Pictures and to Lear’s ACT III Communications. And it wouldn’t work in trying to sell the movie to the public, either, he said.

“When you hear the word of mouth on this picture, it’s not about what happens in the movie.” The talk, Avnet said, focuses on the four quirky characters, who are, simply, strong individuals and enduring friends.

“This story is about old-fashioned friendships that are less cosmopolitan and more caring than we know today,” Avnet added. “That may be at the core of what makes this such a strong experience.”

“Fried Green Tomatoes” is set in the South of the present and of 50 years ago. In the present, Evelyn Couch (Bates) is a frustrated, overweight housewife, whose husband ignores her. Her only outlet is a rewarding friendship that develops with Ninny Threadgoode (Tandy), who lives in a Birmingham, Ala., nursing home. The older woman begins telling her tales of her younger days in the town of Whistle Stop, Ala.

In her past, there was Idgie Threadgoode (Masterson) and her intimate friend Ruth (Parker). Together, they ran the Whistle Stop Cafe where such dishes as fried chicken, berry pies and fried green tomatoes are served. From these stories, Bates’ character derives a sense of empowerment that enables her to take control over her own life.

The screenplay, by Fannie Flagg and Avnet, is based on Flagg’s late 1980’s novel, “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.”

“It does hit basic issues among women--support, friendship and loyalty,” said Madelyn Fenton, the director of marketing and advertising for the multi-state AMC Theaters chain. “But it appeals to the ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ crowd as well.” The reference was to the 1989 movie that also was set in the South and starred Tandy. “Daisy” won the Oscar for best picture and became a popular hit, grossing more than $100 million.

Lear said the movie “is touching something that is very deep. I’m getting mail and calls and the message is always the same: In this very alienated time, it’s invoking the longing for friendships and connections.”

Lear credited part of the current success to the nurturing by Universal--the platformed opening pattern, from a few to more than a thousand screens. “They let it bloom,” he said.

“There’s also tremendous goodwill among audiences for the two Academy Award winners (Tandy and Bates),” Lear said.

As audience surveys began revealing a strong appeal to younger audiences, Lear said advertising images were altered to include the additional images of the two younger female actresses. And commercial time was purchased on programs that have primarily younger demographics.

Current surveys show audiences for the film span all age groups and pull in both sexes nearly equally, according to Universal.

“It’s been a discovery for people,” said Universal’s Si Kornblit, executive vice president of worldwide marketing. “Movies like this are hard to capsulize in 30-second commercials. So what we’re seeing is the result of word of mouth. It’s interesting to note that in almost all locations, the second week’s business has been better than the first.”

“These women don’t fit into the mold of what Hollywood thinks of women,” said Sally Van Slyke, Universal’s senior vice president of marketing, who said she took a special interest in the film.

“These women are not victims, they’re survivors. That’s the greatness of this story.”