Waiting to Exhale

Judith I. Brennan writes for Entertainment Weekly

Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax Films: I used to call my Bubbie on the morning of opening night. I called her every movie until she passed away four years ago. She'd always say, "You have to step out with your right foot." So I'd hang up the phone and I'd take a step with my right foot, and it was always lucky for me. It's a Jewish thing.

[Director] Quentin [Tarantino] is the worst on opening night. He likes to watch--at midnight. I like to go early, but no, he's gotta do midnight. With "Jackie Brown"? Magic Johnson Theater. "Pulp Fiction"? One of those Manns in Westwood--who can remember? Not 8 p.m. Not 10 p.m. Midnight. Always with the midnight.

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David Zucker, producer and director: We usually smear ourselves with hot oil. Just kidding! Truth? We do like everybody else. We rent a van, pack in the cast, drive around and check out the theaters. But only when the movie is great, of course. When we did "Airplane" we went around to a bunch of theaters, sat in and watched with the audience. People would see Bob Hays [Robert Hays, one of the movie's principals] and do a double take. They'd go up to him and say, "You look like that guy in the movie." OK, so he was being discovered.

Opening night of "Top Secret"--remember that? I was sitting in the audience, and I'm behind these two girls; I think they're enjoying it. Then about halfway through the movie, one leans over to the other and says, "This sucks." I just kinda sank down in the chair. Lower and lower and lower.

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Sherry Lansing, chairwoman, Paramount Motion Picture Group: I go to theaters. As many as I can, usually in Westwood, Century City or in the Valley. Always have. I go to watch the lines and the audience reaction. It tells you what you need to know.

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Cameron Crowe, director and screenwriter: The "Fast Times" ["Fast Times at Ridgemont High," Crowe's first movie] memories are vivid. The early test screenings were like going to a funeral. The studio didn't want to put the movie out. They finally decided to release it in the dregs, the end of summer. No fraternity car ride around to theaters. In fact, everybody with the movie had something better to do. On opening night Irving Azoff [one of the producers] calls and says, "Hey, don't worry. A coupla people showed up."

The next day, I'm going to a wedding in Tucson, and we're about halfway there and I say, "What the hell, let's go by a theater." We see "Fast Times" on the marquee in some town just outside Tucson and the line's wrapped around the theater. So we all get out and go in. And a whole bunch of people were hanging in the lobby, talking about Jeff Spicoli [Sean Penn's stoned surfer character], and I'm thinkin' this is some kind of miracle. We go to another theater and it's packed, and there's this guy standing in the lobby in the same checkerboard tennis shoes as Spicoli's, and he's saying, "I know that dude." So, basically, I left L.A. thinking I am a total loser with no future, and by the time I get to the wedding, I'm telling everybody, "Yeah, that's me. I'm a screenwriter. A BIGGGG screenwriter!" But 24 hours earlier . . . man, I was locked in a coffin, no air inside, no mercy, just dread.

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Jerry Bruckheimer, producer: I rent a van. I take everybody who wants to come. The director. The writer. The stars. Everybody. We usually start at one of the big theaters. Multiplexes are good. Pick one and go inside, wait 20 minutes, make sure audience responses are hitting the marks. If they aren't, well . . . . Then we pile back in the van and go to Mr. Chow's. Always Mr. Chow's. We all have a martini--Kettle One, straight up, coupla olives. Dinner is made up special. Then, back in the van, on to the theaters, one side of town to the other, checking the crowds, checking the responses.

The opening night of "Beverly Hills Cop," we were in New York. Security was everywhere; it was crazy. But Don [Simpson, Bruckheimer's former partner, who died in 1996] had this superstition: He had to have a hot dog from every concession stand. And he did. That was a lot of hot dogs.

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Alan Ladd Jr., producer, former head of MGM and 20th Century Fox: On "Star Wars" there were no previews. No word of mouth from critics. No test screenings, except one. It was 10 a.m.; I'll never forget it. When that spaceship came up on the screen and it kept going and going, the audience got up and cheered. They'd never seen anything like it. I'd never seen an audience respond like that. I started crying. George [Lucas] started crying. "Star Wars" was one giant emotional risk. But even with that response, George and I headed for Hawaii on opening weekend and there we stayed.

On the opening night of "The Omen," we were all at Dick's [director Richard Donner's] house. When the first call came in from one of the big theater chains telling us we broke a house record, somebody raised their glass and said, "Let's drink to that." We did. Problem was, every theater called in that night and said we had set a house record. And every time we toasted it. By the time the evening was over there were 15 people passed out on Dick's lawn. I certainly couldn't tell you how I got home.

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Forest Whitaker, actor, director, producer: I try to sleep in as much as I can. And I pray in the morning. On "Waiting to Exhale" [which Whitaker directed], we drove around 'Frisco, checking the lines. You care when you're starring in a movie, but when you're directing or producing, there's even more at stake. We went into one theater to see how people were responding, to see if they were laughing. I couldn't wait 'til the end. I had to leave.

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Ron Bass, screenwriter and producer: I leave town. With "My Best Friend's Wedding," I headed to Seattle. I didn't want to be in L.A. But the phone still rings. If a movie doesn't "open," I like to go to the theaters, stand in line and listen to people talk. And it doesn't matter what city. How people respond, when they laugh, when they don't laugh--that tells you if it works.

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Richard Zanuck, producer and former head of 20th Century Fox: For years, I carried this little Buddha in my pocket. Some people have worry beads. I had this little Buddha. When I had a movie opening, I would rub his stomach. His stomach was absolutely rubbed flat and he was originally a pretty fat little guy. Then one day I lost him at a restaurant. I guess I took him out of my pocket and left him on the table. I went back to the restaurant, even dug through the garbage, but I never could find him. Right now, the only ritual Lili [his wife and producing partner] and I have is that we cannot sit together on opening night. The tension is so thick, you could cut it with a knife. So we go separately to different theaters, and we meet later and compare notes.

But there is something else. And I've always done this. I just can't help myself. I have to call the theaters opening night. I'll get the numbers to theaters across the country. I call up and ask for the results. I tell them it's me, but sometimes they don't believe it.

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Arnold Kopelson, producer: Anne [Kopelson's producing partner and wife] and I usually start out with a very quick snack. Then we start hitting the theaters, maybe seven or eight. Depends on when we finish the snack. Started with "Platoon." I remember we were in Westwood that night, and we passed a Japanese restaurant and started to turn the corner when we saw this line four blocks long, right out onto Wilshire. I told Anne, "Take a good long look at this. We may never see it again." We got lucky. We got to see it again on "The Fugitive" and again on "Seven." And each time we'd go home and make love.

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Ron Underwood, director: I try to get as far away as possible. On "Heart and Souls," I wentt to London. On "Speechless," I blanked out. "Tremors" was the only one where I went around to the theaters--covered the territory from Pasadena to Santa Monica. I wouldn't do that again. This opening night box-office mania has become a terrible thing. Everybody obsessing on the numbers. Terrible. Takes away from the fun of it. The story of "Mighty Joe Young" [scheduled to open in November] in part takes place in Zaire. Maybe I'll finally go to Rwanda on opening night.

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