When it comes to Hollywood odd couples, Paramount Pictures and MTV Films are right up there with Miramax and Disney.
The conventional 90-year-old studio and the music channel’s hipster film division have had some uneasy moments in the nine years since they were thrown together by their parent, Viacom Inc. But never have their clashing worldviews been more evident than with the new film “Better Luck Tomorrow” -- at least before it became an unexpected hit.
The movie, which was purchased by MTV Films and released April 11 through Paramount’s specialty label, Paramount Classics, opened to an unusually high $27,775 per screen on 13 screens. With its edgy tale of drug dealing and murder among academically stellar Asian American kids in suburbia, the film was a natural fit for MTV Films, which picked it up for $500,000 at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
“ ‘Better Luck Tomorrow’ generated controversy since the first day it screened,” said David Gale, MTV Films executive vice president. “A lot of executives who saw it were put off by what the movie was about, and that, in many ways, was what excited us about it.”
One of those put-off executives was Paramount Classics’ co-president, Ruth Vitale, who attended the festival with several Paramount executives and made it known publicly that she hated the movie.
Vitale, who runs Paramount Classics with partner David Dinerstein, said disagreements are inevitable in the emotion-laden world of moviemaking.
“The movie business is a very opinionated business,” Vitale said. “Better Luck Tomorrow” “is not a movie that I personally liked the message. That doesn’t mean there isn’t business to be done with it.... MTV clearly understood that they knew how to market this movie to their audience.”
MTV Films’ unbridled enthusiasm also miffed top executives because they were not consulted about the purchase. “We sometimes like to know a little early on,” said Rob Friedman, Paramount Pictures chief operating officer, who added that they found out about the acquisition in the newspaper.
Still, the movie’s success marks a turning point for MTV Films: It was the company’s first acquisition, and it controlled all of the marketing -- from posters to the TV advertising to the grass-roots campaign.
“Even though Paramount didn’t go into it with confidence, they came out of it with confidence,” Gale said. “Everybody feels like this is the beginning of a whole new way of making, distributing and marketing movies [for MTV] that are more specialized and come out of festivals like Sundance.”
Not only has the movie attracted a large Asian American following, but it also has crossed over to non-Asian 18- to 25-year-olds. Now showing on 400 screens, it should gross more than $2 million by this weekend.
In its campaign, MTV targeted Asian American college campus groups but also reached out to its broader audience by making the movie look “Tarantino-esque” -- gritty, violent and real. The movie was sold not as an Asian American film, but as an American story starring Asian American actors.
“The thing that made it unique was that there was an Asian American grass-roots support system in place,” Gale said. “But it started to cross over ... audiences recognized that Asian Americans being portrayed in the movie doesn’t make it any less American.”
Several companies offered to buy the movie at Sundance. But director Justin Lin said he went with MTV because its executives gave him final cut and he felt they understood the movie.
Because of some Paramount executives’ initial bad impressions of Lin’s film, the project had a very low profile internally -- so low, in fact, that Paramount Pictures Chairman Sherry Lansing was not aware of the movie until months after Sundance, when a reporter told her about it.
Once she had seen it, she said, she enthusiastically backed it, calling it a breakthrough film. Lin was asked to make changes in the final act, which was seen as too downbeat, and he polished it up with a $100,000 infusion from Paramount.
The studio’s chilly reception was not unprecedented. For example, the studio passed on “The Original Kings of Comedy” when MTV executives and producer Walter Latham brought it to them at the concept stage. MTV went ahead and produced the movie for $3 million, then negotiated a release through Paramount. The movie, which came out in August 2000, grossed $38.1 million. Paramount also initially passed on “Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat,” which MTV made for $2.5 million and which grossed $19.1 million domestically following an August 2002 release.
Paramount also had been criticized for mishandling “Election,” Alexander Payne’s critically acclaimed satire about high school politics. The film, which Paramount released in 1999, went on to gross only $14 million -- though it received two Academy Award nominations.
“Sometimes a film needs a more careful and slow release,” Lansing acknowledged. “Perhaps that would have benefited ‘Election.’ ”
With the success of “Better Luck Tomorrow,” Gale hopes MTV Films will get the autonomy it craves: “We sort of took a chance and it worked. Right now, we are in a better place than we were one year ago.”