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Why ‘Being Human’ Misfired : Movies: Despite having Robin Williams in the lead, the movie is in trouble, in part because of low audience awareness and a difficult story line.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As an aging nanny in drag, Robin Williams catapulted the movie “Mrs. Doubtfire” into a runaway hit for 20th Century Fox, which recently released the popular comedy on videocassette. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. this month opened its own Robin Williams movie, “Being Human,” but to wildly different results.

While “Mrs. Doubtfire” has grossed $400 million worldwide at the box office, and is expected to be a hit at video stores, “Being Human” will likely wind up in the dust bin of good intentions.

And therein lies a tale. Or, as the female narrator of “Being Human” might have put it: Therein lies a story of a story. But what’s in a story? “In the end, isn’t every story all the one story?” she asks.

So, just what is the story with this movie?

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“Being Human” opened May 6 in limited release (on 224 screens) to $764,011 with very little audience awareness. Over this past weekend, the movie plummeted 64% at the box office to only $278,326 and will quickly disappear.

Despite the movie’s pedigree--written and directed by Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth (“Local Hero”), produced by David Puttnam (“Chariots of Fire,” “The Killing Fields”) and Robert F. Colesberry (“Mississippi Burning”) and headlined by one of the industry’s biggest stars--"Being Human” simply failed to catch on with audiences.

It even had the marketing power of Warner Bros. behind it.

But tracking polls by National Research Group last week showed that “Being Human” was in serious trouble.

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Only 43% of test audiences were aware of the film during its second week in release (60%-65% is considered average), while a scant 1% of audiences of all ages listed it as their first choice of a movie to see.

“You need a minimum of 8% to 10% (in the first-choice category) to open a picture,” said one studio distribution executive who routinely evaluates such tracking scores.

“Awareness has to do mostly with spending (on advertising),” he explained. “When you see a low awareness score, it’s for one of three reasons. One reason is that it’s going out in limited release and tracking is done in 16 cities and maybe there is no spending in those cities yet. The second reason is a lot of money isn’t being spent to make you aware of it. The third reason is whatever is being spent, isn’t sticking.”

Since the movie is about a man (Williams) searching for his place in the world, it was a difficult concept to get across. Print ads showed Williams standing on a beach with an odd smile on his face looking skyward.

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Even had Warners opted to target the film for a specific audience, it may not have worked. Only 2% of males over 25 said it was their first choice of a film to watch this weekend while 1% of males and females under 25 said it was their first choice. Teens between the ages of 12 and 17 gave it a dismal 30% awareness rating.

Women over 25 gave it a higher awareness rating (56%) than audiences in general, but that still wasn’t very good.

In other words, said a studio marketing source, people just didn’t like what they saw.

“If people don’t like it, they tell you,” he said. “If they don’t like it, the rest of the world usually doesn’t like it.”

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In the film, Williams plays five different characters, from cave-dwelling hunter-gatherer, to unlucky slave in the Roman empire, to medieval traveler, to survivor of a Portuguese shipwreck, and finally to an apartment-dwelling junk-food consumer in modern times.

A number of critics panned the movie. One found it wistful and charming, and observed that the cynical movie audience might rather want to watch a car crash, a massacre, a sexy bedroom tryst, or a “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Others, however, warned audiences that if they came expecting a zany Robin Williams, they would leave mystified and disappointed.

Although the 1992 comedy “Toys” was both a critical as well as box-office disaster, audiences rediscovered his comedic talents as the genie in last year’s animated Disney movie “Aladdin” and then again in “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

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Williams’ odyssey continues.


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