They were two of the most highly anticipated films of the fall season, each made by veteran movie stars and Oscar-winning filmmakers: "Quiz Show," directed by Robert Redford, and "Love Affair," co-written and produced by the film's star, Warren Beatty.
Both movies were backed by powerful studio marketing and distribution machines, and both were hyped to the hilt by their high-powered creators.
Yet, the movies failed to ignite the box office. Was "Quiz Show" too high-brow for middle America? Does Beatty no longer have the drawing power to open a film, or is the country too cynical to accept an old-fashioned romantic melodrama?
"It's risky to ask the audience to think," says Redford. "I don't know whether they're in that mode or not."
A circumspect Beatty said he hopes his film will still "find its audience."
Of the two, Disney's "Quiz Show" had all the advantages. According to Redford, he received his best directing notices to date. In addition, "Quiz Show" provoked news stories and editorial columns aplenty about the actual '50s scandal and what it says about America--both now and then. From the start, the film has been consistently mentioned on the short list for best picture and best director nominations.
To date "Quiz Show" has grossed about $20 million, which, according to Entertainment Data Inc.'s Tom Borys, is not particularly low given the film's "reality drama" genre. In the last year, the only films of a similar nature to do better were "Philadelphia" ($77 million) and "The Piano" ($44 million).
Box office for the movie, which stars Ralph Fiennes, started strong in big markets. The movie then slowly unfolded around the country. Too slowly, according to critics of Disney's release strategy. "They left money on the table by not expanding more quickly," says one rival studio executive. "That may have cost them as much as $10 million."
The challenge from the start, says Dick Cook, Disney's distribution head, was to spread the bounty outward from the core urban audience. "We did well in every major city downtown theater," he said. "But in suburban theaters we had only limited success."
The play-out was similar to 1992's "A River Runs Through It," Redford's last directing effort, a film that was thought to have little commercial potential but wound up grossing $43.4 million. The difference, says Redford, is that "River" was "rural and went deeper into the culture. 'Quiz Show' is more sophisticated in nature and more urban. . . . Maybe it's reached the audience it was meant to reach."
According to Borys, he may be right. The film should, with Oscar nominations, achieve numbers comparable to last year's "Remains of the Day," "In the Name of the Father" and "Shadowlands"--all of which grossed $20 million to $30 million.
Another irony is that all the media attention "Quiz Show" received may actually have backfired. "It made it sound like the film was a documentary, that it was good for you rather than entertainment," says Cook.
"The presentation of moral ambiguity in all the characters may also have been a detriment," adds Eammon Bowles, head of distribution for the Samuel Goldwyn Co. "Ultimately, the subject matter may have been limiting. People like good guys and bad guys to root for. It's playing very much like a specialty film."
Unfortunately, not at specialty prices. "Quiz Show" reportedly cost in the mid-$20-million range, before marketing. And, while Redford says that the media places too much emphasis on box office, he does admit that today's average cost of a studio movie (about $30 million before marketing) makes such assessments inevitable.
"Those were the days," he sighs, about a time when films like "Quiz Show" could be made inexpensively and not have to gross $50 million in order to show a profit.
In the case of Warner Bros.' "Love Affair," some Hollywood observers believe its modest performance (just under $11 million through its first two weekends) derives from several factors.
Beatty was reluctant to discuss the movie's performance in detail, except to say, "I like the movie very much. It's doing OK, and it will be nice if it continues to hang in there and find its audience."
A Warner Bros. official said the studio knew going in that "Love Affair" could be a tough sell.
"Clearly, this was an old-fashioned concept and an old-fashioned movie," said studio spokesman Rob Friedman. "There were no special effects. It had no violence, no sex. . . ." Sadly, he added, perhaps today's audiences are just not drawn in large numbers to movies about "starry-eyed romance."
Then there is the generational factor. Friedman said that "younger people did not come" to "Love Affair" but that the studio is not sure why. Some believe younger audiences do not readily identify with the 57-year-old Beatty as a romantic lead and question whether the actor is losing some of his drawing power. While a bona fide star, he is usually not considered in the same league with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner or Tom Cruise, although they too have had box-office duds.
"I think we're seeing in the marketplace that actors of the Keanu Reeves generation are pulling moviegoers into theaters, not the Warren Beatty romantic-lead generation," said one official at a rival studio. "With 'Speed' and 'Interview With the Vampire,' you have young, sexy casts."
Some say audiences may not feel the same attachment to Beatty as they did a similar character, Tom Hanks in "Sleepless in Seattle." Directed by Glenn Gordon Caron, "Love Affair" is a remake of the 1957 classic "An Affair to Remember" and the 1939 original "Love Affair."
One agent suggested that "thematically, ('Love Affair') is the story of a guy who is a womanizer who comes to grips with his life after finding his true love. I don't know if that is enough to be drawn to a movie. In 'Sleepless in Seattle,' Hanks was a sympathetic character who was still in mourning for his wife. You felt for him. At the climax of the movie, at the top of the Empire State Building, you were rooting for this guy, who you just loved.
"With 'Love Affair,' in real life, everybody knows Beatty was a womanizer. Everybody knows his history. And, everybody knows he's married to Annette Bening," he said, referring to Beatty's co-star.
Some believe the marriage may have turned off filmgoers.
'You already know, in the back of your head, that they're together so you don't believe the tension," said one studio official. "It takes the fantasy away," said another.
"If Beatty had been cast with Demi Moore or someone else, even though you know they'll get together, it's more suspense," said another industry source.
Friedman said if their marriage was to blame, it never appeared in the exit polls taken of test audiences.
One real problem with the movie, some say, was that it lacks sufficient romance.
"There's no love in it, no spark in it--none of those things you go to a romantic film for," said one studio executive."
Industry sources say that Warner Bros. stands to lose a lot of money on "Love Affair," which is estimated to have cost more than $40 million.
One high-profile agent suggested: "Assuming that it cost $40 million to $50 million to make and they spent another $15 million to open it, you're chasing a lot of money . . . maybe it will gross $20 million (domestically)."
Friedman said the $40-million production figure is "high" and estimated that the film will top out at $30 million domestically and have a good afterlife in overseas release.
Robert Welkos is a Times staff writer; Richard Natale is a regular contributor to Calendar.