"Lethal Weapon 3," "Far and Away," "Alien 3," "Batman Returns"--these are the major studios' big-budget hopes for monster hits at the box office this summer.
But there's also a growing feeling in the industry that a handful of giant-slayers are stalking the big guys.
In this corner . . . Hollywood Pictures' "Encino Man," a $7-million comedy starring MTV personality Pauly Shore that opens opposite Universal's "Far and Away" and 20th Century Fox's "Alien 3," on Friday. Another contender is Fox's $9-million "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," a comedy-horror film starring "Beverly Hills 90201" star Luke Perry, Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland and Rutger Hauer that arrives July 31. Not surprisingly, both films are aimed at the teen market, an arena that has demonstrated impressive power with the recent success of "Wayne's World."
"It was probably one of the stupidest stories we could ever come up with," says producer George Zaloom about "Encino Man," the story of two high school outcasts, played by Shore and Sean Astin, who unearth a frozen caveman in Astin's backyard, defrost and adopt him. "It just seems to work with audiences."
Zaloom says executives at Hollywood Pictures jumped at the idea right after hearing their pitch of the story and immediately put it into development.
According to Hollywood Pictures President Ricardo Mestres, "Encino Man" fits perfectly into the film division's plans for less expensive films. "What's gratifying about this film is that it was inexpensive to make and has all the entertainment value and hopefully the commercial potential of something made for much more," says Mestres, whose division also produced the "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle."
"Encino Man" is the feature directorial debut of Les Mayfield, who, along with Zaloom, is a veteran of promotional documentaries made behind the scenes of movies in production. The movie is one of the first from the studio to hit theaters since Disney went on its austerity kick. "We've dubbed it the 'memo picture,' " says Mayfield, referring to Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg's call for budget belt-tightening. "The studio wanted to set an example of what could be done with a union picture in Los Angeles."
Mestres agrees: "If we can make three or four of these kind of movies a year, that's a gigantic opportunity for studios."
According to Mayfield, "Encino Man" was shot in 33 days--a short schedule, especially for a comedy. "It was ridiculously fast," says Mayfield, who also says the two filmmakers were not supervised by a veteran producer, as is often the case on a director's first feature film. "They just threw us out and said 'sink or swim.' "
Just as "Wayne's World" benefited from a built-in audience familiar with the characters Wayne and Garth from the popular "Saturday Night Live" sketch, Disney is hoping that "Encino Man" will get a boost from the fact that Pauly Shore is a well-known MTV personality with his own show, "Totally Pauly," which has a dedicated following.
So far, "Encino Man" has been testing extremely well with the mostly high school-aged audiences for whom it has been screened. (Like the "Bill & Ted" movies and "Wayne's World," the marketing includes its own brand of youthspeak, created by Shore.) "It's was very good for us to have 'Wayne's World' come out just a little before us," Mayfield says. "That movie showed the industry that they should take this type of thing seriously."
Just as Disney's "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," became a huge hit in 1989 during the summer of "Batman" and "Lethal Weapon 2," Mayfield is hoping that "Encino Man" will take on the big guys. "Hopefully we represent an alternative," he says. "It's a comedy kids can go see."
"Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" is also set in the world of a Southern California high school. Written by Joss Whedon and directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui, who made her directorial debut with "Tokyo Pop," "Buffy" is about a popular high school cheerleader who finds she's the latest in a long line of women chosen to slay vampires. It also features the first movie appearance by Paul Reubens since his arrest last year on misdemeanor charges of indecent exposure. Although the film wrapped only two weeks ago and is still being edited, it's already creating a buzz around town.
"Buffy" was originally due to be released in late summer, but according to Kuzui, executives at Fox decided to move up the film's release to July 31 after seeing dailies.
"We really have our summer kind of scheduled around 'Buffy,' " says Fox's domestic marketing president, Andrea Jaffe, who said the film's marketing will revolve around the film's "high concept" title. "This is a concept movie," she says, "and we're going to sell the concept. It's what we have to do."
Jaffe says she also wants to start showing the film to get the word-of-mouth cranked up--like Disney has been doing with 'Encino Man"--if the film is finished in time. "To do that you've got to have 50 to 80 prints of the movie," she says, "and this is such a tight turnaround that we could conceivably not have prints until a week before the film is set to open."
As for opening against the competition, Kuzui says she's not worried. "There's probably not really any good time to open a movie," she says. "By August, everybody is just interested in having a good time and I think that's what this movie will provide. I wanted to make a movie that was fun."
Another low-budget contender is Warner Bros.' moderately-budgeted "Class Act," starring comedian-rappers Kid 'N Play in a movie about mistaken identity that opens June 5 against Paramount's "Patriot Games" with Harrison Ford. "It's a smaller movie," says Todd Black, producer of "Class Act," which, like "Encino Man" and "'Buffy," is decidedly directed toward a younger audience. "We don't have major movie stars, but we have enough confidence to come out against the aircraft carriers of the summer."
"Class Act" also had its release date moved up by the studio, a decision, Black admits, that did not initially thrill him. "My first instinct was I wasn't happy," he says, "but you just have to believe in the film and hope there's enough room out there in the movie world that audiences will go see both movies."