Challenging the Force With a ‘Love Letter’

As movie stunts go, this one was pretty clever. While fans patiently stood outside the AMC Santa Monica on the Third Street Promenade last week to purchase advance tickets to “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace,” a group of women staked their own place in line to hype the new romantic comedy “The Love Letter.” Holding photos of “Magnum, P.I.” star Tom Selleck, who co-stars in the film with Kate Capshaw, the women began chanting “ ‘Love Letter!’ ‘Love Letter!’ ‘Love Letter!’ ” as sci-fi fans chanted “Star Wars!’ ‘Star Wars!’ ‘Star Wars!’ ” News cameras were there to record the good-natured rivalry. It was just another way for the marketing team at DreamWorks SKG to drum up publicity for its smaller film. The studio is releasing “The Love Letter” on Friday, only two days after the latest edition of “Star Wars” hits the big screen. Some might think that DreamWorks must be crazy to open “The Love Letter” in the face of the George Lucas empire, but that’s not necessarily the case. In recent years, some studios have profited by “counter-programming” small films against big ones. In 1996, for example, Disney released a wispy tear-jerker called “Phenomenon,” starring John Travolta, opposite the 20th Century Fox effects-laden sci-fi hit, “Independence Day.” While “ID4" took in $85 million over the five-day Fourth of July weekend, “Phenomenon” opened with $24.5 million in box office. The following year, Warner Bros. released a dark romantic comedy called “Addicted to Love,” starring Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick, opposite Steven Spielberg’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.” The dinosaurs romped, taking in $90.1 million over the four-day Memorial Day holiday, but Meg and Matthew pulled in a respectable $11.4 million. “That’s a pretty good example of counter-programming,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitors Relations Co. Inc. But the formula doesn’t always work. When Sony released “Men in Black” over the 1997 July 4 holiday, Fox counter-programmed with “Out to Sea,” starring those old rascals Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. The film opened to a seasick $7.6 million.

Let’s See if the Sky’s the ‘Limit’ for Snoop

Will the Dogg have his day? The new album chart arrives Wednesday, and many industry observers will be carefully watching Snoop Dogg’s “No Limit Topp Dogg” to see if the Long Beach native can regain his form as a major force in rap. Snoop exploded on the hip-hop scene in 1992 as the featured rapper on Dr. Dre’s landmark “The Chronic” album and then, a year later, ascended to the top of the genre with “Doggy Style,” an album that has sold more than 5 million copies. Since then, however, Snoop has weathered a criminal trial in connection with a shooting (the jury ruled it self-defense), a messy divorce from Death Row Records and whispers in the industry that he is a non-factor without his sometime collaborator and mentor, Dre. So while his last album, “Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told,” has sold 1.8 million copies since its release in the fall, Snoop’s role in the new landscape of rap is unclear. Can he sell like DMX, Jay-Z and the other new stars on the scene? “There’s a wider cast of characters, definitely, a lot of players out there right now,” says Bob Feterl, regional manager of Tower Records. "[But] I think it’s going to be big, a multi-platinum album. Not as big as ‘Doggy Style,’ but big.” Sizable enough to debut at No. 1? No, say Feterl and other retailers, because early sales projections show the top spot this week will go to singer Ricky Martin’s self-titled debut album.

Fox, Knievel Take the Plunge . . . Again

Fox attracted an audience of nearly 12 million people April 29 to watch daredevil Robbie Knievel not try clearing the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle, after inclement weather caused him to postpone the stunt. On Thursday, Fox tests that old adage about fooling some people all the time, giving the “Robbie Knievel Grand Canyon Death Jump: Live” another go. The formula for these specials (Knievel completed a record-setting building-to-building jump on Fox in February) involves creating suspense leading up to the attempt, which takes place in the last 15 minutes. Yet millions of viewers sat through a full hour of such fare just three weeks ago. Fox insists the new special will include new material to engage the audience. “They’re doing everything they can to make it fresh,” a network spokesman said. Fox, however, has a bit of a credibility problem, since its officials apparently knew Knievel wouldn’t jump well in advance the last time but continued the “will he or won’t he?” game until late in the hour. Moreover, the event will air live in the Eastern time zone and thus be taped for local broadcast, meaning West Coast viewers would be wise to check the radio before they devote another hour of their lives to a “live” non-jump.


--Compiled by Times staff writers and contributors