The one sure thing that David Fincher's $68-million movie "Fight Club" has going for it, or against it, is controversy.
According to movie marketing experts, the free publicity that the film is generating can either help or impair a film's ultimate box-office performance.
No one in Hollywood doubts that 20th Century Fox's "Fight Club," starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, will have a strong opening this weekend--estimates range from $14 million to $17 million. But many believe the movie will face an uphill battle sustaining itself in the marketplace and appealing to people beyond its hard-core audience of 18-to-30-year-old males due to its graphically violent content.
Despite some critics praising the film as a groundbreaking masterpiece, "Fight Club" is being released at a sensitive time, with violence in entertainment a major flash point in Washington. In the wake of the Columbine massacre and other violent outbreaks around the country, Congress has been considering ways to regulate violence in entertainment. In June, President Clinton ordered a federal probe into how entertainment markets its movies, music and video games.
"Fight Club" may be the most violent mainstream-studio movie released since the Columbine tragedy.
Fox naturally chose not to play up the violence in its marketing materials, which some competitors regard as misleading advertising. Instead, the company is focusing on the film's cinematic achievements, its originality and larger themes.
"Audiences are saying, 'Give us something original,' " said Fox marketing chief Bob Harper. "This is not a movie that's been made five other times. It's unique, distinct and intelligent, and the biggest marketing tool in its post-opening will be that it's something riveting and important to talk about."
Fox executives are hoping audiences will look below the surface and connect with the film's satirical, existential themes and overarching comment on the modern world and the dehumanizing influences of such things as consumerism.
"I think the movie is very, very intense in its ideas and the way they're presented, and people mistake that for violence," said Laura Ziskin, who as head of the studio's movie label Fox 2000 was the executive who four years ago bought and developed Chuck Palahniuk's book on which the movie is based.
With a script by first-timer Jim Uhls, "Fight Club" stars Norton as an alienated white-collar drone stuck in a meaningless job at a big car company. He befriends a freaky, charismatic loner (Pitt) who lives in a dilapidated mansion where he makes strange soap.
The two begin an underground fight club, where disaffected men like themselves take out their pent-up aggressions by beating up one another bare-fisted as a way of emancipating themselves from the numbness of contemporary life.
Fox's movie chairman Bill Mechanic said boxing classics such as "Raging Bull" and "Rocky," and certainly many war films, are much more graphic than "Fight Club," which he doesn't see as a violent movie.
Mechanic said the fact that Ziskin was the one who championed and developed the movie indicates that "Fight Club" won't turn away most women as some people are speculating.
"I'm interested in what it has to say about men and society at large," said Ziskin, "and why we have all these [material] things and still feel numb and can't sleep at night."
Still, Fox executives are well aware that their unconventionalmovie--which was co-financed by Arnon Milchan's New Regency Productions--won't appeal to everyone. Those who have seen this film tend to either love or hate it. The New Yorker critic David Denby called it "a fascist rhapsody posing as a metaphor of liberation," while Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers called it "groundbreaking."
Mechanic said: "It's an us-versus-them movie. It's certainly not a middle-of-the-road movie. . . . We didn't make it for everyone."
Mechanic remains convinced that the film could do enough business to make it a hit.
"We didn't make it as a noncommercial movie. The fact that we made it at the price we did, we had the inherent belief that it would attract a big enough audience to turn a profit," the Fox chairman said.
The film's success will ultimately depend on word of mouth. If the movie doesn't satisfy enough of the audience, no degree of controversy or publicity will help sell tickets.
Mechanic readily admits that "Fight Club" was a big, expensive risk for Fox. But at the same time, he's proud that "it's one of the more interesting movies" to be made during "a kind of adventurous period at the studios," which lately have backed such movies as "American Beauty" and "Three Kings."
The fact that "Fight Club" was made at all is credited to the late Fox executive Raymond Bongiovanni, who headed the New York office of Fox 2000 and sent the book to Ziskin and her then top executive, Kevin McCormick (now at Warner Bros.), in the fall of 1995.
"Raymond called us one morning and said he had been up all night reading this book and we should read it," said Ziskin, recalling how 36 hours later she was sitting "on the edge of my bed in the middle of the night reading dialogue out loud to [her screenwriter husband] Alvin [Sargent], thinking, 'This is amazing.' "
A week later, when Fox optioned the book for $10,000, Ziskin admits, "Quite honestly, I didn't know how we'd make the movie, but I did think at the very least that underground fighting was a commercial idea."
McCormick sent the book to various producers, among them Art Linson, and Josh Donen and his partner, Ross Bell, who jumped on it.
"I read the book overnight, and halfway through, I thought it was too dark," Bell said. "Then I came to the reveal [or hook], and I knew there was a movie there."
Bell and Donen (who left producing to become an agent before the movie was made) sent the book to Fincher, with whom the producers had another project at TriStar Pictures. The director, whose credits include the dark thriller "Seven," "Alien 3" and "The Game," loved the book.
Bell also hooked up Fincher with writer Uhls before Linson took over producing responsibilities. (Bell, Linson and Cean Chaffin are the credited producers.)
Uhls recalled: "There were concerns about how the movie would be made. . . . The book is dreamlike. It's a first-person rant by the central character. My job was to flesh it out into scenes and have the characters act in a way more fully realized."
Uhls added that everyone on the creative team and at the studio was "aware that we were doing something out of the mainstream of Hollywood storytelling, and that was exciting to all of us."
When Fincher signed on to the project, Ziskin said the movie "ratcheted up and got bigger," meaning what was originally conceived as a smaller, relatively low-cost movie evolved into a much more ambitious production.