Famous First Words


The “buzz” on 20th Century Fox’s big action movie “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” which opens today, is simply awful.

“It stinks,” “There’s no story,” “It’s going to be the biggest money loser of the summer,” are among the things Hollywood insiders have been saying for months about the upcoming sequel to the 1995 hit that boosted the careers of Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.

The buzz on Warner Bros.’ “Batman” sequel, which comes out next weekend, is equally negative.


“The series is worn out,” “It’s way over the top,” “It looks like a bad version of ‘Starlight Express,’ ” say folks in the movie industry.

The industrywide buzz on Sony Pictures’ “Men in Black,” which stars Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, is that it’s this summer’s event movie to beat: “It’s going to be huge,” “It’s going to blow everything else out of the water,” “Every kid in America wants to see this picture.”

There also is very positive buzz on Sony’s other summer entries, which include “Air Force One,” with Harrison Ford, and the romantic comedy “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” which stars Julia Roberts, as well as Warner Bros.’ “Contact,” with Jodie Foster, and “Conspiracy Theory,” which teams Roberts and Mel Gibson.

“Buzz” is industry jargon for the word among several thousand movie industry insiders--studio executives, agents, managers, lawyers and talent as well as publicists, critics and journalists--who often know or hear things about films long before they’re shown or even completed.

To some extent, all industries thrive on trade gossip. But Hollywood buzz is unique in degree; its inhabitants make a living manipulating ideas and trading on information.

It’s intangible, yet those in the business talk about it as if it were a concrete thing, as scientific as a poll. The consensus in Hollywood is that, in most cases, buzz is a good predictor of how a movie will do at the box office.


“It’s a good indicator of which way the wind is blowing,” said Mark Gill, president of marketing for Miramax Films and the former head of publicity for Columbia Pictures. “It’s pretty unusual for buzz to be completely wrong.”

In recent years, buzz has taken on a heightened meaning because of the attention paid to the workings of the entertainment industry by every major media outlet.

“Reporting across the country on inside industry information has become part of the mainstream,” said Gerry Rich, marketing president of MGM-UA. “Audiences are now aware of production budgets, production problems, box-office grosses and per-screen averages--which have all become part of the vernacular throughout America.”

Industry buzz is now reported on by such TV programs as “Entertainment Tonight” and “Extra,” Rich notes, “in places like Peoria, Ill.--and that never happened before.”

Studio executives agree that more often than not, the buzz tends to be right on.

“Most of the time, the buzz is right,” said Peter Wilkes, senior vice president of executive communications at Sony Pictures.

Last year, nearly everyone in Hollywood was convinced that “Independence Day” would be huge. In 1994, word had it that James Brooks’ “I’ll Do Anything” was going to be a bomb.


However, there have been instances when the buzz was totally off.

Some examples: Kevin Costner’s 1990 three-hour western “Dances With Wolves” was dubbed by Hollywood “Kevin’s Gate,” a reference to United Artists’ 1980 notorious disaster, “Heaven’s Gate.” Similarly, Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” was said to be too long, too violent and too self-indulgent to attract audiences. Both movies did well at the box office and swept the Oscars.

Last Christmas, the buzz throughout Hollywood was that Fox’s romantic comedy “One Fine Day,” starring “ER’s” George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer, was a slam dunk. It wasn’t. The controversial “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” released last fall, had terrific buzz going in, but the film, after being critically well-received, never found its audience.

Another classic example from Gill’s days at Sony (which owns Columbia Pictures and TriStar Pictures) was how the pre-release buzz on James Cameron’s summer 1991 movie, “Terminator 2,” was terrible. The film became a worldwide mega-hit.

Said Gill, “Everyone said it will be a disaster and will sink Sony and Carolco,” the movie company that produced the action film. The negative buzz was generated by the fact that “Terminator 2,” costing $100 million, was going to be the most expensive movie ever made (at the time) and that the director was having problems making the original release date because of technical production problems.

The buzz on Cameron’s latest movie, “Titanic,” is equally bad for many of the same reasons, which have more to do with the movie’s extraordinary cost of more than $200 million and troubles on the set than with the quality of the film.

Early word, which sometimes comes even at the script stage, often escalates during the production, particularly when there are problems.


A dramatic example of buzz going from great to dismal was “The Last Action Hero,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Gill and other Sony executives remember that long before its release in June 1993, national magazines were writing puff pieces about the movie, predicting it and “Jurassic Park” would be the summer’s two hottest titles. It was just a question of who had more muscle: Arnold or the dinosaurs.

Then the movie was screened, “and it went downhill from there,” Gill said. Advertising, publicity and marketing tools such as trailers and clips can do a lot to generate buzz, as can exhibitor and market research screenings and “tracking,” a polling device used by studios to measure audience interest level in films before opening.

Because it is regarded within the industry as a good predictor, publicists often go to great lengths to try and influence industry buzz.

“People tend to view buzz as ephemeral and tough to define,” said Sony’s Wilkes, “but, in most cases, studios make their own buzz on films.”

A good example would be when Sony’s marketing executives trotted out director Barry Sonnenfeld and the stars of “Men in Black,” Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, plus other cast members, and screened 20 minutes of early footage of the movie for select New York news media. The buzz coming out of that endeavor, about nine months before the film’s upcoming Fourth of July weekend opening, was that the studio had a sure-fire hit.


Sony’s 30-second TV spot during the Super Bowl in late January fueled the positive buzz, as did Fox’s Super Bowl spot on “Independence Day” last year.

(Remember the image of the White House blowing up?)

Exhibitor screenings and the two annual theater owner conventions, ShoWest, in Las Vegas, and ShoEast, in Atlantic City, N.J., where clips and completed films are pre-screened, also can contribute much to a movie’s buzz.

“Exhibitors are a big source of word-of-mouth,” MGM’s Rich said. “They have their finger on the pulse of the marketplace.”

But frequently, early buzz on a movie is created by people in Hollywood who haven’t seen any footage on an upcoming release. In a town where competitors commonly wish for their rivals’ failure, jealousy and envy can often perpetuate early negative buzz.

Can a studio do anything to deflect or counter bad buzz?

“Good tracking or a good review can quell negative buzz,” Rich said.

If a movie is genuinely good, screening it to critics and journalists helps tremendously, studio executives agree.

But if the movie is truly a stinker, Gill and others concur, “it’s very tough to reverse or overcome bad buzz.”


Then, there are the dozens of sleepers that have no buzz whatsoever before their release. Sometimes, it’s for good reason. Other times, there are those films that seem to come out of nowhere to be big hits. In Hollywood parlance they’re known as “sleepers”--movies that totally go under the radar. Or in cases such as “Forrest Gump” and “Ghost,” their pre-release buzz was good, but not close to the impact they had on the public.

Hollywood is already buzzing about some of next summer’s potential hits, including Sony’s “Godzilla.”

But at this point it’s just idle talk.

Or is it?




* Men In Black: “Every kid in America wants to see this picture”

* Contact: “Jodie is fantastic”

* My Best Friend’s Wedding: “Great date movie”

* Conspiracy Theory: “You can’t miss with Mel and Julia”

* Air Force One: “Harrison totally delivers”


* Speed 2: Cruise Control: “Fox is gonna lose its shirt”

* Batman and Robin: “Time to retire the franchise”


* Hercules: “Better than ‘Pocahontas, but it’s no ‘Lion King”’

* Face/Off: “Confusing premise, but don’t bet against Travolta”

* Titanic: “Looks really good, but it’ll never make it’s money back”

Source: Industry insiders