“Forrest Gump” may be tough to peg. But director Robert Zemeckis’ fable about the meaning of life through the eyes of a mentally impaired Southern bumpkin has had no trouble capturing the biggest industry buzz of just about any upcoming summer film.
The July 6 Paramount Pictures release, starring Tom Hanks, Sally Field, Robin Wright and a few cameos of dead Presidents, has been heaped with praise by the nation’s exhibitors and executives from competing studios. Even those who have only seen the “Gump” trailer are doling out kudos--a relatively uncommon phenomenon from Hollywood rivals. And some haven’t even seen the trailer but are riding on word of mouth.
Echoing an oft-heard prediction, a 20th Century Fox executive believes that the movie will likely be an Oscar contender. Another Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer vice president expects it to be one of the top 10 box-office films of the year. And a Warner Bros. distribution executive said that the consensus from exhibitors is “universally great.”
Yet, despite all the plaudits, Paramount sources reveal that the studio has had a tough time trying to figure out how to sell this picture in the summer’s crowded marketplace, especially since it is not “high concept,” or easily described.
In fact, officials from the studio refuse to talk about how they plan to position “Gump” against the competitive summer product.
It’s not a comedy, not a drama and not comparable to movies like 1988’s Tom Hanks fantasy-comedy “Big”; 1979’s “Being There,” starring Peter Sellers as a simpleton gardener, or 1988’s Oscar-winning drama “Rain Man,” with Dustin Hoffman as an idiot savant as some would like to pigeonhole it, says Paramount spokeswoman Cheryl Boone Isaacs.
“It’s sort of a fantasy, but not really.” she explained. “Around here, we’ve called it a docu-fable. But it’s just unique and it will be handled that way.”
“Gump” producer Wendy Finerman, who tracked down Winston Groom’s book nine years ago and has been trying to make the movie ever since, has been assured Paramount will handle the picture in a “special way.” She said, “This is one of those movies where you laugh and cry, (it’s) just a very magical story” about a guy with an IQ of 75. That’s why I was so determined to see it made someday.”
Exhibitors and studio competitors expect “special” to mean Paramount will sneak the picture, possibly twice, and let it build momentum on strong word of mouth advertising.
“If I was them that’s the way I would handle it,” says Warner Bros. distribution president Barry Reardon. “We had a picture like this, ‘Dave,’ that didn’t fit comfortably into any niche. So we did double sneak previews, first in 230 (theaters), then in 500. And it worked like a charm. The word of mouth spread.”
“I’ve seen the film and I know there’s only one real way to sell this picture,” concurs John Krier of Exhibitor Relations, “word of mouth.” He suggests that the reason there’s a lot of buzz on this film is that “it is so unusual, not the same old twist on all the other movies you’ve ever seen. It’s fresh.”
However, he added, “Some exhibitors thought it was a bit of a downer because of allusions to Vietnam and what happens with the girl he loves. But most loved it."*