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Quality doesn’t always mean B.O. quantity

Movies and water seek their own level.

That’s the way it works in theory for movies – quality is supposed to translate into strong box office.

The truth is that the most difficult thing to sell to the public is a “really good movie.” That’s because films have increasingly become thrill rides, fleeting diversions and gimmicks. They’re not made to last, let alone resonate in the audiences’ mind as far as the parking lot.

Still, there are enough people who know how emotionally involving good films can be and a lot of producers and directors who want to make films that are about something. And those filmmakers often make very commercial movies and often have the clout to get “Braveheart,” “Nixon,” “Philadelphia,” “The Age of Innocence,” “Forrest Gump” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt” made – not all commercially successful, but certainly artistically worthy efforts.

The past weekend featured a pair of movies that aren’t exactly slam-dunk B.O. prospects: Warner Bros.’ “L.A. Confidential” and the Buena Vista release of Polygram’s “A Thousand Acres.” The industry is particularly intrigued by “Confidential.” It’s received almost unanimous rave reviews, scored with critics in Cannes and Toronto and, based on weekend theater averages of close to $6,800, has the potential to hits a bull’s eye in the next couple of crucial weeks.

The film doesn’t have the obvious sales hooks that soothe executive nerves. The film noir genre has never been particularly commercially potent, particularly when served up as a period piece. “Chinatown,” which grossed a then lofty $30 million in 1974, was the genre’s last true success. “Confidential’s” leads are untried at the box office and the supporting cast with Kim Basinger and Danny De Vito aren’t prime marquee names. Throw in limited action, an absence of special effects and, in keeping with the material, a rather downbeat ending, and the full extent of the task becomes clear.

“We always knew we had a good picture and that the critics would respond. We were also very aware that it would take a lot of work to develop an audience,” said WB distribution president Barry Reardon. “Considerable thought and effort has gone into the release strategy.”

The picture debuted, out-of-competition, last May at Cannes. Initial plans were for a limited opening in late August and a national expansion after Labor Day. But when the opportunity arose to premiere with a weekend Gala slot at the Toronto fest, release plans were pushed back a month. There was still the question of how wide or limited to bow.

The days when prestige films opened with exclusive engagements in L.A., New York and Toronto and rolled out a month later to the top 25 markets have become a dim memory. Whereas moviegoers rarely had more that a couple of new films to chose from on any given week five years ago, this fall an average of four films will be opening nationally every week, in addition to an equal number of specialized bows. Now it’s rare for a quality studio pic to step out with fewer than 50 playdates.

Warner Bros. concluded that 800 playdates would effectively give them top locations in major urban markets and justify taking out national TV spots. The film grossed $5.2 million – less than a sensational start, but not at all discouraging. A lot more work will be necessary if the company hopes to expand the pic to its broadest possible audience.

“It’s a cruel, unforgiving marketplace,” observed Fox senior exec Tom Sherak. “It’s not possible to sit and wait for a picture to find its audience. You basically have two to three weeks to make a film work. That’s largely the result of an enormous volume of movies and the cost to advertise. You have to get people’s attention right away or you lose them to the next six new releases.” Reardon agrees that attention spans are extremely short.

The ongoing challenge for “L.A. Confidential” has been to attract outside its core appeal of sophisticated, big city crowds. It indeed appears to be playing to its target audiences in major centers on the East and West Coasts and in Canada. However, with few exceptions, the vast expanse between has yet to discover the film and the clock is ticking. This weekend the film needs to maintain its hold with upscale audiences as well as register some crossover strength in more mainstream situations. If the film falls by more than a third, the next expansion will be revised downward.

In October, another handful of pics from the majors will be employing some sort of platform release to capitalize on pedigree. Those films include Hollywood Pictures’ “Washington Square,” Fox Searchlight’s “The Ice Storm,” New Line’s “Boogie Nights” and TriStar’s “Swept From the Sea.” None have box office stars, all are period pieces and each of them is heavily reliant on critical attention to bring in crowds and create word-of-mouth.

The strategy has increasingly become very risky business. Three years ago, both “Quiz Show” and “The Shawshank Redemption” went the platform route in September and October and, despite considerable ink and strongly favorable reviews, never fully translated acclaim into anticipated box office gross.

The other major hurdle for quality product opening in early fall is simply to survive the grueling weeks through November and December in the hopes that there will be a second wind from critics’ prizes and Golden Globe nominations. Again, that’s the way things used to be. In the present theatrical climate there appear to be no second acts. Pictures opening this time of year are rarely onscreen at Thanksgiving. Then they face fierce competition from Christmas platforms that go wide in January.

Domestic re-launches of “Quiz Show,” “Braveheart,” “Fargo” and “The Postman” may have been good politics and clever campaigning, but they created no better than a box office ripple.

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