Friday, May 9, 1997
Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD HEAVYWEIGHTS
Scheduling a Film? Checked With Him?

Harrison Ford, defending his movie's release,
fires warning shot at Paramount's 'Titanic.'

By PATRICK GOLDSTEIN, Special to The Times
 

Harrison Ford is the kind of guy who doesn't like to be crowded.
     Since last fall, his new movie, "Air Force One," has been scheduled for release at the end of July. But with a glut of summer blockbusters on the way--and only a limited number of choice weekend slots to fill--his Sony Pictures film no longer has a July 25 opening date to itself.
     Earlier this year, Warner Bros. Films moved "Conspiracy Theory," a Mel Gibson thriller, to the same weekend. And in recent days, after news surfaced that "Titanic" couldn't be finished in time for its July 2 date, the industry has been abuzz with talk that the $200-million disaster film, co-financed by Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox, might move to July 25 too.
     According to reports circulating in Hollywood this week, Ford made an angry phone call to Viacom Entertainment Group Chairman Jonathan Dolgen, threatening to end his long-standing relationship with the studio. Surely this was no way to treat the movie star whose action heroics had generated mega-millions in revenue from such hits as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Witness" and "Patriot Games."
     "Harrison was definitely irritated," says Patricia McQueeney, his longtime manager. "He didn't make any threats. He was not huffing and puffing. It was a friendly phone call. But Harrison did say, 'Jonathan, what the hell are you guys doing?'
     "Actually, I doubt that he said 'hell'; he's too much of a gentleman. But I would have said it. We're very concerned about the whole situation."
     Paramount isn't the only studio feeling the heat. McQueeney says she and Ford had a similar conversation with Warners Chairman Bob Daly a month ago, voicing their displeasure with the studio's decision to move "Conspiracy Theory" to July 25.
     "We were exercising our prerogative, because we were on the date first," McQueeney says. "Harrison gets involved in every aspect of his films, including the business side. And it's bad business to open two movies on the same date, much less three of them."
     It remains unclear whether the rival studios are willing to risk damaging their relationships with Ford, the most enduring box-office attraction of his generation. According to a Warners spokeswoman, Daly says he doesn't recall talking to Ford about the film and that the studio has no plans to move off its date. Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Friedman did not deny that Ford had phoned Dolgen. But clearly upset over the intense media scrutiny of "Titanic," he refused to discuss the studio's reaction.
     Asked if Paramount had offered Ford assurances that it would avoid opening "Titanic" on July 25, Friedman angrily responded: "We've made no decision on a release date. As soon as we make one, we'll put out an announcement."
     However, McQueeney seemed confident that the studios had gotten Ford's message. "We expect Warners to move their film," she says. "And while Jonathan Dolgen said he reserves the right to do what's best for his films, he agreed that it wasn't a good idea to open on the same date."
     Each summer brings a new round of release-date skirmishes as studios try to carve out free weekends for their new films. Some films stake out release dates a year in advance.
     This summer, other studios are keeping their distance from Steven Spielberg's "The Lost World," which early last summer announced its intention to open on Memorial Day weekend. Sony Pictures has already announced that its big event film of 1998, "Godzilla," is opening the Wednesday before next Memorial Day weekend.
     Two big-budget films can open on the same weekend, of course, but only as long as the movies are not competing for the same ticket buyers. This Fourth of July, 20th Century Fox's "Out to Sea," aimed largely at older audiences, is going up against Sony's "Men in Black," a highly touted thriller that is expected to appeal to young moviegoers.
     It's a tactic that worked last summer when Fox's "Independence Day," a youth-oriented alien invader film, opened on the same July 4 weekend as Disney's "Phenomenon," a romance aimed at a more mature audience. Each film ended up grossing more than $100 million.
     But films can be hurt when they compete for the same audience. When "Men in Black" moved to the same July 4 weekend as Fox's "Speed 2," the latter film moved off the date because the studio was worried about having to compete for the same young male audience. Sparks flew when Fox shifted "Speed 2" to the same June 6 weekend as Disney's "Con Air," setting up another collision between two youth-oriented action films. When Disney wouldn't give up the date, Fox moved "Speed 2" back a week, saying the film couldn't be ready in time.
     "Nobody owns a release date," says Tom Sherak, chairman of Fox's Domestic Film Group. "You can't register it like a movie title; it's up for grabs. In the summer, this is all about positioning your film to find the biggest available audience. Sometimes that can put you on a date someone else wants. Then you have to decide whether it makes more sense to fight or switch.
     "You're dealing with something different with Harrison Ford. He's saying, 'Why would you want to hurt my movie?' It's not just an argument about release dates. It's about your relationship with an incredibly valuable asset."
     With "Titanic" still unfinished, Paramount has a huge dilemma. Hollywood's Summer Olympics are fast approaching--"The Lost World" opens two weeks from today--and the studio says it still has no idea when "Titanic" director James Cameron can deliver his movie. Filming was completed in late March, but the three-hour-plus movie is mired in post-production, a painstaking process that includes editing, sound mixing, music scoring and computer graphics work.
     Cameron originally planned to have his special effects handled by Digital Domain, a leading effects firm that he co-founded. But time is short, and Cameron plans to use more than 250 effects shots in the film. Studio sources now say that to speed up the process, the filmmaker has agreed to farm out work to as many as four other effects firms.
     Cameron and Rae Sanchini, the film's executive producer, would not comment on the film's progress. But sources at Fox say the film could be ready for a July 25 release. Because Paramount seems unwilling to antagonize Ford, or compete against two formidable youth-oriented films, Aug. 1 is probably the earliest the film could hit theaters. That would give the film a month of summer play dates before teenagers, the most active moviegoers, return to school.
     Paramount's other option is to hold the film until November, operating under the theory--based on a recent computer study--that more films opening in November have hit the $100-million mark than summer films released after July 4.
     "They're worried about 'Titanic' getting caught in the late-summer doldrums, when moviegoers are tired of big-bang films," says one rival marketing executive. "It's what happened last year, but it's hardly a consistent pattern. Look at 'The Fugitive.' It came out on Aug. 6, and it ended up doing $185 million."
     As the domestic distributor in the partnership with Fox, it's Paramount that makes the call about "Titanic's" release date. But Fox has made it clear that it is adamantly opposed to moving the film to November. Having put up roughly $120 million to Paramount's $65 million, Fox has far more money tied up in the film, an outlay that would surely spiral higher--along with steep interest charges--if Cameron were allowed another four months to work on the film.
     It's unclear whether this strategic maneuvering means anything to everyday moviegoers. "I'm tired of talking about release dates," says Sony distribution chief Jeff Blake. "I think it's time we talked about the movies."
     He points to June 8, 1984, when two movies were released on the same date--"Ghostbusters" and "Gremlins." Both movies managed to make a little money: "Ghostbusters" did $238 million; "Gremlins," $148 million.
     "If that was today," Blake says, "there'd probably be hundreds of articles saying, 'Who's going to be No. 1?' But here's the real point: They were both monster hits."
     
* * *


     COMING THIS SUMMER

     If "Titanic" doesn't make its scheduled July 2 release, Paramount's challenge is to find another date where it will not have to compete with other major releases. Following is a short rundown of the major releases from July 2 to Aug. 1.
     * "Men in Black," July 2: Sci-fi action film with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.
     * "Out to Sea," July 2: Comedy with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.
     * "Contact," July 11: Jodie Foster as an astronomer who detects radio signals from deep space.
     * "George of the Jungle," July 18: Brendan Fraser brings the cartoon hero to life.
     * "Conspiracy Theory," July 25: Action thriller with Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts.
     * "Air Force One," July 25: Air Force One is hijacked with President Harrison Ford aboard.
     * "Leave It to Beaver," Aug. 1: Updating the classic TV series.
     * "Picture Perfect," Aug. 1: Romantic comedy with Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Bacon.
     Source: Los Angeles Times

Copyright 1997 Los Angeles Times

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