The Many People vs. 'Larry Flynt'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not long after it opened, "The People vs. Larry Flynt" found an unexpected enemy: feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem.

At the time, that may not have been much of a concern to Columbia Pictures, which released the movie. The film biography of porn entrepreneur Flynt had garnered excellent reviews upon its Christmas Day release and was doing brisk business in Los Angeles and New York. Besides, controversy could only help sell tickets.

And so on Jan. 10, three days after Steinem published a newspaper column attacking the movie, Columbia expanded the number of screens showing "Flynt" from 16 to 1,233.

The movie never recovered.

Columbia's $35-million biopic has turned into a major commercial disappointment, grossing just $20 million after more than two months in release. Even Academy Award nominations for director Milos Forman and star Woody Harrelson do not appear to have drummed up much business.

Naturally, observers seek answers when a well-reviewed and heavily publicized movie fails. And that has led to a question: Did Steinem--a longtime friend to Hollywood liberals who enjoys occasional walk-ons in films such as "The First Wives Club"--help kill a movie?

The people who made "Flynt" think she's at least partly to blame. To them, the timing of the Steinem attack and the box-office drop is too close for mere coincidence.

"I wouldn't doubt it had an effect," said "Flynt" producer Janet Yang.

Lisa Henson, the former president of Columbia, said: "It's horrifying to think that the intelligentsia would turn against an intelligent film like this one."

Henson, who now runs a production company with Yang, was especially perturbed by a Variety ad that reprinted Steinem's column during the height of the Oscar nomination process. "To go and urge people not to vote for the movie for Academy Awards," she said, her voice trailing off. "Well, that means we can just look forward to more stupid portrayals of women in the movies."

Indeed, Columbia and Phoenix Pictures, which jointly financed "Flynt," recently paid for ads accusing the National Organization for Women, which has frequently allied with Steinem, of leading "an orchestrated effort to hurt the film . . . with the members of the academy and thus with the public."

But many industry analysts and exhibitors believe Steinem's protest actually had little, if any, impact on box office. They point out that "Flynt" has remained popular with upscale, urban audiences--the people most likely to be aware of the Steinem controversy--but it simply never connected with the mass market.

"It never got to the general populace," said Sonny Gourley, senior vice president at American Multi-Cinema Inc. (AMC), which operates about 1,700 screens nationwide. "It did very well in our upscale locations over the holidays. But after it started to go wide, it didn't do well."

Why? "Who knows?" Gourley replied. "I think people didn't want to see a movie about Larry Flynt. And once it didn't get a best picture nomination, it was basically over."

Author Neal Gabler likewise disputed a "cause-and-effect relationship" between Steinem's protest and the movie's fall. The studio merely "overestimated the power of the critic," says Gabler, a former reviewer who writes about movies and popular culture.

Steinem herself was said to be traveling and unavailable for comment. But in a letter to The Times last month, she defended herself against charges that she had organized a campaign against "Flynt." "When is a $20-million-plus [studio] campaign evidence of sincerity," she asked, "while a few voices raised in protest are 'an orchestrated effort'?"

Observers point out that it is hardly unusual for public figures to attack movies. During his failed 1996 presidential bid, for instance, Bob Dole took aim at "Natural Born Killers," "True Romance" and other violent films he dubbed "nightmares of depravity."

But the Steinem critique surprised many, who believed "Flynt" would prove most offensive to conservatives such as Dole.

In a Jan. 7 op-ed piece in the New York Times, the feminist leader began: "Larry Flynt the movie is even more cynical than Larry Flynt the man." She went on to castigate the filmmakers for painting Flynt as a free-speech hero and omitting the repugnant images of sexual torture and mutilation he had published over the years.

Whether deliberately or not, Steinem had struck the movie industry's Achilles' heel. "If the attack had been coming from the right, it would have been easy for Hollywood to ignore," Yang says. "But it's very damning to use words that apply political correctness to this debate."

Ten days later, the filmmakers received another jolt. Someone--it remains unclear exactly who--paid for an ad in Variety reprinting the Steinem piece. It was headlined "For Your Consideration," the same phrase used in ads touting Oscar contenders. Janet Claybrook, the president of the Washington-based lobbying group Public Citizen, has admitted placing the ad but has said her group did not pay for it and would not disclose who did.

"Flynt" still has many admirers besides reviewers--many of whom put the movie on their 10-best lists for 1996. The ACLU Foundation of Southern California announced last week it would give Forman its Torch of Liberty Award, which honors media figures who build support for 1st Amendment issues. And the Writers Guild of America will give screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski a special prize for work that upholds "constitutional and civil rights and liberties." A Columbia spokesman insisted the movie still had commercial life, especially overseas, and could benefit from an Academy Award.

Despite the Oscar nomination boost, however, the movie last weekend grossed a paltry $281,097 on 484 screens and will probably disappear from many of those locations within the next couple weeks, exhibitors say. And given the adult-oriented subject matter, "Flynt" seems unlikely to fetch top dollar from network broadcast rights or video sales. Columbia and Phoenix spent more than $20 million for prints and marketing, over and above the $35-million production budget.

Of course, the filmmakers know there is no way to prove their assertion that Steinem helped sink "Flynt." They also realize that scapegoating is tantamount to admitting defeat.

When asked whether she believed a feminist campaign had quashed "Flynt," Henson paused and replied: "I can't stand to hand them that victory."

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