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How to Find Own Little Niche at the Box Office

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are two films that, at first glance, might seem better suited to the fall, when Oscar nominations are just coming into focus, school is back in session and moviegoers have presumably overdosed on high-octane car chases, explosions, gunfire and tornadoes run amok.

Instead, “Moll Flanders” and “Phenomenon” will open this summer against two potential blockbusters.

“Moll Flanders,” a richly textured period costume drama starring Robin Wright and Morgan Freeman, will be released June 14--the same date that Jim Carrey’s high-voltage comedy “The Cable Guy” hits the nation’s movie theaters.

“Phenomenon,” which stars John Travolta as a man whose intellect dramatically increases after he is struck by a mysterious blinding flash of light, opens July 3--the same day invaders from outer space are set to attack the world in the special-effects-laden science-fiction thriller “Independence Day.”

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But what appears on the surface to be a David-vs.-Goliath-type battle of the box office is a case study in how major studios today use counter-programming to fill theater seats.

“We know ‘Independence Day’ will clobber us,” said “Phenomenon” director Jon Turteltaub, whose film is expected to open in about 1,500 theaters compared with between 2,300 and 2,500 for 20th Century Fox’s “Independence Day.”

“Everyone in the country can’t go see one movie,” Turteltaub said. "[Disney’s Touchstone Pictures] believes in this film and believes people may actually make ‘Phenomenon’ their first choice.”

With Travolta in the lead role and a budget in the $30-million range, Turteltaub concedes that “Phenomenon” is not a small film, but it is also not a “hype film.”

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“ ‘Independence Day’ will fly banners over the city,” the director said, “but I think the marketing ace in the hole we are counting on is what amounts to friends and neighbors saying . . . ‘You should really see “Phenomenon.” ’ “

Disney studio officials said they picked the date because by then, moviegoers will have had such action movies as “Twister,” “Mission: Impossible,” “The Rock” and “Eraser” and will be primed for a comedy-drama.

That formula worked successfully for Disney in 1989, when it released “Dead Poets Society” around the time of “Batman,” “Ghostbusters II” and “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.”

Dick Cook, Disney’s president of distribution and marketing, said the Fourth of July holiday is a five-day period that is probably one of the biggest moviegoing weekends of the year, so that even if one film dominates the box office, other smaller films could benefit by people wanting to take in more than one film during the long holiday.

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“No one movie always sucks the wind out of the marketplace,” Cook said.

Even with “Twister” and “Mission: Impossible” capturing much of the box office, “Spy Hard,” the Leslie Nielsen comedy, had $10 million in ticket sales over the Memorial Day weekend, Cook pointed out.

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Pen Densham, who wrote and directed “Moll Flanders,” concedes his film is a “little, can-do” production with a budget “only a million dollars more than Demi Moore’s fee” to star in “Striptease,” but he is counting on positive word of mouth and counter-programming to make his film profitable.

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“The biggest problem is getting some kind of moment so people can distinguish you from the thundering herd,” Densham explained.

When MGM officials suggested that his film be released in early summer, Densham said: “I sort of bought into the concept that if you put a movie out there, they will come.

“We’ll be the only film that has a very deeply emotional story line to it,” Densham added. He noted that while a large segment of the moviegoing public will rush out to see action films, “there is another entire audience out there that doesn’t come out as quickly, but they go to movies that move them emotionally, movies like ‘Field of Dreams,’ ‘The Joy Luck Club’ and ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral.’ ”

Gerry Rich, president of worldwide marketing for MGM/UA Distribution Co., said the studio toyed with a number of possible release dates, but decided that the movie has scenery and an “intelligent love story” that is “decidedly different from other films in the marketplace.” The film will open on 275 screens nationwide, Rich said.

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Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, said the fall season is actually a tough period to release a movie because studios are dumping films that they couldn’t get released in the summer, the midweek box office dries up because school has reopened, and Thanksgiving brings on a bevy of Oscar contenders.

Bernard said Sony Classics will release four small-budget films over the summer months. On Memorial Day weekend, it opened “Welcome to the Dollhouse” going up against Paramount Pictures’ blockbuster “Mission: Impossible.” The small-budget film took in $200,000 at only seven theaters in Los Angeles and New York.

“Summer is great [for small films],” Bernard said. “We were the only movie company to open against ‘Jurassic Park.’ We released ‘Orlando’ at almost the same time of year. It set records all over the country.”

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But studios often fight big movies with other big moves--ones that target a different audience.

This weekend, Disney’s Hollywood Pictures is rolling out “The Rock,” a big-budget action film centered on Alcatraz that stars Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris. Paramount, meanwhile, will release the kids-oriented movie “The Phantom,” which is based on the comic-book hero.

On June 21, Disney’s animated film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” goes head-to-head against “Eraser,” the Warner Bros. action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

On July 12, the Michael Keaton comedy “Multiplicity” opens opposite the war drama “Courage Under Fire,” starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan, with the younger-skewing “Harriet the Spy” opening two days earlier.

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The week after that, Universal Pictures will release “The Frighteners,” described by some as a “ ‘Ghostbusters’ for grown-ups,” opposite Disney’s “Kazaam,” a comedy starring basketball’s Shaquille O’Neal, and “Trainspotting,” an edgy British film about heroin addicts from Miramax Films.


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