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Why Three Didn’t Live Up to High Hopes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the end, movie audiences didn’t dig “Diggstown.” They were cool to “Cool World.” And they slew the hopes of those who made “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Of all the movies released by major studios this summer, the consensus around Hollywood is that these were among the most notable flops.

To be sure, Universal’s “Far and Away"--the Irish/Western saga starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman--was the summer’s runaway disappointment because expectations going in were so high, but it will make a hefty amount of money when all is said and done. Disney’s “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid,” the special-effects-rich sequel to “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” didn’t do as well as people hoped, although it returned a profit. And everyone knew going in that “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery” was sunk at harbor.

But when it comes to hopes being dashed, three are often mentioned: “Diggstown” from MGM, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” from 20th Century Fox, and “Cool World” from Paramount.

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“Diggstown,” a boxing/gambling/con-game comedy, was supposed to be the resuscitation of MGM, an example that the studio that has had financial difficulties in recent years was on the right course under Alan Ladd Jr. But the movie, which went up against “Single White Female” from Columbia, stumbled badly out of the gate Aug. 14 and to date has racked up only $3.9 million.

What happened to “Diggstown,” industry observers report, was a combination of mistakes, from advertising to casting. Once audiences were in their seats, they liked the movie. But few of them got there. The film stars James Woods as a hustler and Louis Gossett Jr. as a boxer and revolves around a 24-hour boxing match with super-fighter Gossett battling 10 opponents while Woods and Bruce Dern bet bundles for and against him.

But the advertising campaign essentially rested on selling Woods and Gossett, often in poses that didn’t seem to clearly convey the boxing theme of the movie. The ad had the phrase “The Hustle” next to a picture of Woods in sunglasses and “The Muscle” next to Gossett. Gossett occasionally was seen in boxing trunks, but often was shown from the chest up in Windbreaker and T-shirt. What did it mean? What did “Diggstown” mean?

“All the campaign was, was selling two guys,” said one industry executive, who asked not to be identified, “but when the two guys are Jimmy Woods and Lou Gossett, ho-hum. It’s a movie that needed a movie star.”

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One marketing expert, however, said “Diggstown” was actually a catchy title and what probably hurt the movie more than anything else was that it was hard to interest people with the concept of the cast.

MGM declined to comment when asked about its marketing strategy. It should be noted that Greg Morrison, the president of worldwide marketing at MGM and a longtime associate of Ladd, left his post for “personal reasons” June 9. Marketing decisions these days are handled by Robert Dingilian, who heads publicity, and Tami Masuda, who heads creative advertising.

At Fox, there was excitement at the thought of teens rushing to see “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” After all, the premise was intriguing: each generation, a nubile young woman, ignorant of her task, is designated a vampire slayer and this time around it is Buffy (Kristy Swanson), a cheerleader for Hemery High School. The movie even had teen heartthrob Luke Perry of “Beverly Hills 90210" fame.

So, why didn’t the teens flock to see it?

“We thought we had a campaign that really worked, and obviously we didn’t,” said Joe Roth, chairman of 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

The ad campaign first depicted a cheerleader seen only from the waist down holding a wooden stake in one hand and pompons in the other. “She knows a sucker when she sees one,” the ad read. Later ads showed Swanson gripping a stake with Perry peeking over her shoulder. The ad read: “Pert. Wholesome. Way Lethal.”

The movie debuted July 31, going up against Universal’s “Death Becomes Her,” the black comedy starring Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis and Goldie Hawn. Bye-bye Buffy. To date, it has grossed only $14.1 million.

“Buffy” cost about $10 million to make. “Thank God, the picture cost almost nothing and we’ll make a little money on it,” Roth said.

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Roth explained that the studio discovered that “Buffy” appealed to adults rather than its target audience.

“I took my son and his 10-year-old friend to see it,” Roth said. “On our way out, the 10-year-old said to me, ‘This is a movie for adults, but there’s no way they would know that.’ I offered him a job.”

One industry insider echoed Roth’s assessment that “the kids didn’t like it enough,” but added that the reason they didn’t could be twofold: Perhaps the cheerleader was too old-fashioned an image, or those who really like Luke Perry can find him, free of charge, on television.

“Cool World” was a feature that combined live action and animation and concerned a cartoonist named Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne), who enters a cartoon world of his own devising only to meet a sexy, voluptuous blond “doodle” named Holli Would (Kim Basinger).

The movie, which has grossed $14.1 million to date, opened July 10. It went up against Fox’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” a romantic comedy (which also struggled at the box office) starring Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan, and TriStar’s “Universal Soldier,” a futuristic action-adventure film that got good box office.

“Cool World” had the star appeal of Basinger going for it, and used the same animation/live-action combination of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” But Paramount’s marketing campaign didn’t seem to work, despite placing a likeness of Holli Would on the Hollywood sign, which generated a rash of news stories.

The ads were a sexy come-on to readers, showing the cartoon bombshell posing seductively near a man holding a gun, while all manner of cartoon creatures frolic and sneer at their feet. “Holli Would If She Could,” read the ad.

One marketing expert said Paramount, instead of presenting the film as a more wholesome, more family-oriented film like “Roger Rabbit,” switched gears and decided to make the ads hip. In other words, they showed Holli with more “T-and-A.”

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“I think it confused people,” said the source.

“ ‘Cool World” unfortunately did not seem to satisfy the younger audience it was aimed at,” conceded Barry London, head of marketing at Paramount. “When films fall as quickly as it did, it indicates they don’t have playability.”


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