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Hype hits ‘Beach’

DiCaprio pic nears sink-or-swim time

Twentieth Century Fox’s “The Beach” — starring Leonardo DiCaprio in his first big picture since that one about the boat — is about to get launched into rough seas.

Driven by Leo-mania, the movie will face soaring expectations, with people asking unfairly, “Why isn’t it like ‘Titanic’?” Or, absurdly, “Will it make as much as ‘Titanic’?”

In a world of Internet sites spinning movie gossip and America’s obsession with box office as sport, battling expectations on big pictures is a growing problem for all the studios.

Rule No. 1: Play it cool.

Sandbagging hype

Only a few months back, Fox execs were bragging about their roster of films for 2000, led by “The Beach,” which will bow Feb. 11. Peter Chernin, the president of Fox’s corporate parent News Corp., explained away a profit dip by declaring that Fox’s roster for 2000 is “on paper, the strongest slate in our history.”

The slate includes the Jim Carrey-Farrelly brothers summer pic “Me, Myself and Irene” and the Robert Zemeckis-Tom Hanks “Cast Away” for the end-of-year holiday season.

But that’s the rub. These aren’t just your usual big movies. “Irene” follows the Farrellys’ “There’s Something About Mary,” a sleeper that grossed $316 million globally. “Cast Away” links Zemeckis and Hanks for the first time since “Forrest Gump” insisted life resembles a box of chocolates — a pic that globally garnered $673 million and won six Oscars.

In other words, Fox has follow-ups to three films that have become pop cultural icons and are in the top-50 box office performers of all time (with “Titanic,” of course, steaming in at No. 1 with a $1.86 billion world gross).

Fox’s chest-thumping, having continued for months, has suddenly died down, particularly regarding “Beach.” The reason, some Fox executives said, is that they don’t want to further hype expectations.

Caught in the wake

Test screenings and a Jan. 15 press junket in Hawaii for “Beach” confirmed that Fox has a very different picture from “Titanic.” “Beach” — a black moral fable about a traveler who tries to find and control paradise — is a bran muffin to “Titanic’s” cheesecake: somewhat downbeat and with DiCaprio in an often unsympathetic role.

Junketeers polled have deemed the picture “dark,” which is more in line with DiCaprio’s dour preboat pics such as “This Boy’s Life,” “The Quick and the Dead,” “Total Eclipse” and “The Basketball Diaries.” All dark, all B.O. nonperformers.

All of which makes “Beach” particularly vulnerable to the expectations sweepstakes. It also has encouraged the studio to scale back the noise level on the launch. Instead of the typical $20 million-$25 million budget to open a film, sources said the number is less.

“Expectations giveth and they taketh away,” said Terry Press, who oversees marketing at DreamWorks. “If you have a small movie no one’s heard of, you’d kill for the awareness that comes with a picture like ‘The Beach.’ But if you have a big film, you’re working hard to make sure expectations don’t spiral out of control.”

Plenty of releases at other studios will face a showdown with big expectations this year. Sony, which had a weak 1999 like Fox, will feel pressure on its big 2000 releases such as the Mel Gibson starrer “The Patriot” (helmed by the man who brought you “Godzilla,” Roland Emmerich) and Paul Verhoeven’s “Hollow Man,” both summer pics.

‘Impossible’ mission

Paramount is dealing with tremendous media interest in “Mission: Impossible 2” because of its stratospheric budget and tales of on-set craziness.

Movie marketing is coming to resemble the political arena, where everyone wants to be front-runner, but where such status also feeds constant suspicion from the media looking for signs of weakness.

“The concept of expectations has become so pivotal that there is no longer such a thing as an objective definition of success,” says political consultant Dick Morris.

“Carry that into the realm of the stock market right now where there is no definition of value,” Morris continues. “There’s just expectations, not living up to expectations, and going beyond expectations. When a movie opens today, it’s not competing against its own costs and other movies: It’s competing against expectations.”

Expectations grate

“The Beach” points up the difficulty of walking the line between keeping expectations under control and feeding the media beast’s need to be fed. New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams even chastised Fox for not holding a premiere of the film in Gotham.

One Fox exec said, “We certainly need to be very careful about accurately representing our movies — particularly when there’s a potential wrong avenue the media may lead the audience down.”

Certainly the press gets some bad marks, particularly for expecting a new film to be just like a star’s or director’s previous effort. DiCaprio has stressed in interviews that he chose to do “The Beach” specifically because he didn’t want to do “Titanic 2.”

“With all respect to fans of ‘Titanic’ … I’m an actor and I have to vary my roles for my own professional survival,” DiCaprio told reporters at the press junket.

Fox knew from the beginning that “The Beach” was a film unlikely to have “Titanic’s” widespread popcorn appeal and adjusted the budget (around $50 million) accordingly.

And what’s wrong with that? There’s a nation of movie reviewers, mostly on sound-bite-driven TV, poised to announce that ” ‘The Beach’ is no ‘Titanic.’ ”

“So much of the culture these days is driven by schadenfreude,” says screenwriter Josh Goldin (“Darkman”). “Every big movie risks running into all this resentment about its budget or its stars’ $20 million salaries.”

B.O. bounce?

The good news for studios is hype may draw barbs from the media but often pays off at the box office. “Godzilla” raked in almost $400 million worldwide. But some wonder if it might have made even more had it not spurred such a vicious media attack.

Perhaps Fox will take a page from its “Something About Mary” play book. That sleeper came in under the radar and wound up beating virtually all of the overhyped pictures that were “sure things.” Word is that Fox is pursuing the same tactic with “Where the Heart Is.” The studio is taking the unusual move of screening the film at ShoWest, the exhib gathering that kicks off in March in Vegas, to showcase director Matt Williams’ ensemble comedy from the ace writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and starring Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd and Joan Cusack.

But don’t bet on that low-key approach becoming the norm in Studioland — or in the media, for that matter. Everyone’s too scared of being a loser.

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