NEW YORK — Last January, Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein made USA Today reporter Andy Seiler an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Faced with a wave of dismissive reviews of “Chocolat,” Weinstein challenged Seiler to pick a venue anywhere in America, and he would prove that the pic would beguile the crowd.
A few hours later, Weinstein was in a Washington D.C. theater. As the end credits rolled, he rose from his seat and asked audience members what they thought. “Not one person said anything negative,” Seiler recalls.
It was a bit of showmanship that would have made P.T. Barnum proud. And though the film at that point had grossed only a few million, it would eventually rack up $71 million in the U.S. Its worldwide total is nearing $150 million.
Slow-and-steady “Chocolat” demonstrates something showbiz has been slow to acknowledge: This movie that critics loved to hate — a low-key fable about small-town intolerance — was tapping a vein largely ignored by noisy genre pics and star-driven tentpoles.
“It’s a modest story without over-the-top sex, car chases or anything really kinky,” says “Chocolat” producer David Brown.
In box office history, plenty of sentimental films have succeeded lavishly. But unlike “Chocolat,” they have usually connected via a love story (“Ghost”), a major star (“Patch Adams”) or a bestselling book (“Fried Green Tomatoes”). And it’s a fine line to walk; the overheated Hollywood mawkishness of “Pay It Forward,” for example, alienated moviegoers only a few weeks before “Chocolat” entered the scene.
Brown says the film’s appeal lies in what he terms its life-affirming qualities. “It has to do with making audiences feel wonderful,” he says. “If I could bottle it, I would.”
New Yorker film critic David Denby says the pic’s formula is all too easy to bottle. “It’s a perfect movie,” says Denby, “because it congratulates people for their good will — that they should be in favor of friendship and love and dancing and against petty-mindedness and intolerance. Who’s going to object to that?”
Perhaps most frustrating to critics is the fact that the sweet, whimsical tone of “Chocolat” helped make it immune to a critical lashing.
“There are movies that critics need to bring an audience to,” says Miramax spokesperson Marcy Granata. “And there are films that speak to an audience directly, one-to-one.”
Miramax shrewdly capitalized on the vague, feel-good message of “Chocolat” by investing the release with an aura of political importance. They held screenings for advocacy groups, like the Anti-Defamation League and political figures like Al Gore and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, all of whom gave the pic their endorsement.
A slogan in print ads for the film asked, “What do you see?” In other words, the film can be whatever audiences want it to be — romantic comedy, mystical journey, social commentary, escapist fairy tale.
That coincided with the usual Miramax grass-roots publicity campaign and a platform release schedule following the pattern of past Miramax crossover hits like “Shakespeare in Love,” “Good Will Hunting” and “The Cider House Rules.”
Add to the mix a hands-on approach from an impassioned Weinstein and a vigorous push by thesp Juliette Binoche, helmer Lasse Halstrom and Brown, and there’s no question that larger forces were swirling around the release than the pic’s emotional content.
Brown has been down this path before. He was the Fox exec who acquired “The Sound of Music,” which appeared to scathing reviews in 1965 (Pauline Kael’s savaging supposedly cost her a job on the staff of McCall’s).
But the pic stayed in theaters for well over a year, becoming Hollywood’s top-grossing tuner to date. “Critics couldn’t stand a movie like ‘The Sound of Music’ because it was euphoric and affirmative,” Brown says.
Today, those qualities aren’t often found on the bigscreen. But they still guide Brown’s creative decisions.
“I can cry with the best of them,” he says. “What moves me, I trust.”