Cross-Cultural Buddies Cash In

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Maybe New Line Cinema got it wrong--maybe "Rush Hour" should have been called "Money Talks." The junior film division of Time Warner played in the big leagues over the weekend, hitting a Sammy Sosa-like line drive over the back wall with the Chris Tucker-Jackie Chan action comedy, which exceeded weekend estimates to gross a staggering $33 million.

That's better than any movie has debuted in August, September or October, handily beating "The First Wives' Club's" $18-million previous September record opening.

It continues New Line's pattern of releasing sleepers, says company production head Michael De Luca, films with fresh talent like "Money Talks" (also starring Tucker) and "The Wedding Singer" (Adam Sandler), which go on to exceed industry expectations. "Money Talks" grossed about $40 million in the fall and "The Wedding Singer" took in about $80 million in the spring.

Exhibitor Relations head Paul Dergarabedian says "Rush Hour's" debut compares favorably to "Lethal Weapon 4's" $34-million debut and "Armageddon's" $36-million first weekend--both in the heat of the summer. "We were expecting it to do well based on the awareness levels," he says. "But you don't usually see these kinds of grosses in the post-Labor Day period. These are summer numbers."

The difference is that "Lethal Weapon 4" and "Armageddon" both had proven box office stars like Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis as well as production costs well over $100 million. "Rush Hour" cost $34 million. "Rush Hour" beat its own projections when Sunday business actually matched the Friday opening, helped in part by schools being out in a couple of major markets like Los Angeles and New York for Rosh Hashana.

New Line knew "Rush Hour" was a potential hit as awareness for the film climbed to 90% prior to its Friday opening with an extremely high 30% first choice among regular moviegoers. But even the most optimistic estimates had the movie grossing less than $25 million.

Selling the Laughs Sold the Movie

What made the difference is the selling of the film, which emphasized its comedic aspects, only further underscoring audience's thirst for comedy (as "There's Something About Mary" continues to prove).

"We did two things that were very conscious," says "Rush Hour" director Brett Ratner. "Since 'Money Talks' (also starring Tucker, which Ratner also directed) was an R-rated movie, we went for a PG-13. And that meant no cursing, which tends to alienate middle America. The other thing was we focused it on the characters and a real dilemma--saving a young girl's life. By basing it in reality, we knew we could attract women and the date-night audience."

New Line used the big summer movies to promote "Rush Hour." The film's trailer has been in theaters for the past three months, often at the head of the summer's most popular hits. The promo emphasized the comedic interplay between the two characters, says Ratner, helping expand it beyond the young male action audience.

"They are both fish out of water in this movie," Ratner says of Chan's amusing encounters with the African American community in the film and Tucker's exposure to Chinatown. This helped bring a freshness to the genre, as did the unlikely pairing of actors.

Also, says Ratner, both characters were on the right side of the law, which Ratner says proved to be a plus both to "Beverly Hills Cop" and "48 Hours," reinforcing a positive image of the central characters and making it palatable to all audiences.

"Rush Hour" continues New Line's pioneer role in the industry as a regular provider of comedies, dramas and action adventures starring African Americans and other nonwhite stars. The Tucker-Chan pairing is unique in matching two nonwhite stars and cutting across demographics, attracting urban and ethnic audiences, young males and families alike. "Putting the two of them together was like lightning in a bottle," says De Luca.

"Rush Hour" further undercuts the long-held Hollywood logic that a buddy movie without a white star can't cross over. ("Beverly Hills Cop" and "The Color Purple" were exceptions and thrust their stars, Eddie Murphy and Whoopi Goldberg, respectively, into the international limelight, though in each case the performer was the solo star.) Completing the circle, the main female character in "Rush Hour" is Latina actress Elizabeth Pena.

Chan may be a major international star, but like many action-only performers like Jean-Claude Van Damme, his U.S. box-office appeal had leveled off. Tucker, however, based on "Friday," "Money Talks" and "The Fifth Element," has been a star looking for a breakthrough. "Rush Hour" appears to be that film. Universal Pictures was the first major studio to anticipate his broad appeal, and signed him to his biggest starring role yet in the spy comedy "Double-O Soul," due next year.

New Line Picked the Right Weekends

This is the second hit in a row for New Line. Last month the company released "Blade," which also had an African American star, Wesley Snipes. The vampire film defied expectations by debuting strongly and holding better than the expected August champion, Miramax/Dimension's slasher sequel "Halloween H20." "Blade" recently passed the $60-million mark and should gross $70 million by the time it's through. It also crossed over to a larger audience, though it was somewhat limited by its R rating and violent content.

The ground for "Rush Hour" was carefully tilled, and New Line got out of the way of the major studios by selecting noncompetitive release dates--Aug. 15 for "Blade" and Sept. 18 for "Rush Hour," although "Rush Hour" had originally been slated for summer and then was moved back, according to producer Arthur Sarkissian. New Line deliberately tries to pick sleeper slots, De Luca says, since it is taking a chance with newer stars and has less money overall to spend on marketing.

Word of mouth on "Rush Hour" appears to be strong enough to carry it to $100 million. It joins "The Wedding Singer," "Wag the Dog" and "Blade" on the company's 1998 hit roster. Two of New Line's coming releases, "Pleasantville" and the controversial "American History X," both due in October, are garnering some strong advance word.

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