Low-budget movies or blockbusters? Hollywood to let box office decide

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Hollywood can't decide whether it's a spendthrift or a skinflint.

* A host of big-budget movies are headed for American screens, from ''Tootsie'' to ''Superman III'' and ''Revenge of the Jedi.'' About 20 of these ''megabuck'' items will carry price tags of $20 million or more.

* At the same time, interest has zoomed in on low-budget projects. Variety, the entertainment trade paper, reports a new vogue for shooting on a shoestring. During the past production year, the major studios have launched some two dozen films tagged at $5 million or less - barely half the current average.

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Most of these will soon be visible at local theaters. Their success or failure could help determine the future trend of Hollywood spending, so box office results will be eagerly scrutinized.

Among the expected low-budget offerings, some follow in the footsteps of previous hits, and are expected to attract audience attention easily. ''Smokey Is the Bandit'' and ''Psycho II,'' both from Universal Pictures, are prime examples.

Others will have special problems in the struggle for box office dollars, Hollywood analyst Lawrence Cohn writes. In today's marketplace, it costs at least $6 million for prints and promotion to put a picture into broad nationwide release. When this is more than it cost to make the movie in the first place, the moguls proceed with care, especially since low-budget items generally lack the movie stars and special effects that help to sell many standard-budget films.

Therefore, modest movies are likely to be tested cautiously in regional runs or exclusive big-city engagements for clues to their box office prospects. In some cases, a film is shunted past the theaters altogether, directly to a berth on cable television.

According to current wisdom, low-budget movies can pay off handsomely when they do click with audiences. Paramount's smash hit ''An Officer and a Gentleman'' has done much to foster this attitude, generating huge revenues despite its modest production style and old-fashioned story.

But other inexpensive productions have fared less excitingly, including items with such ''names'' as Jill Clayburgh and Ryan O'Neal. For this reason, Variety reports, pretesting and flexibility have become the rule in handling low-budget properties. The current ''Moonlighting'' and the recent ''Zoot Suit'' and ''Hey Good Lookin' '' are examples of films that opened in limited ''test'' situations. Of the three, only ''Moonlighting'' still stands a chance of wider release.

Yet today's Hollywood seems genuinely interested in probing the possibilities of low-budget production. Major studios are setting up ''classics arms,'' inspired by the success of United Artists Classics, to explore new methods of marketing inexpensive films by aiming them at specific audiences. Holocaust drama

The movie version of Sophie's Choice eliminates most of the sensationalism and sexual horseplay that diluted the original novel by William Styron. The emphasis of the film is on the historical dimensions of the story, and their meaning for three flawed but credible characters.

There are digressions into low humor, vulgarity, and melodrama. But the overall result is a serious though harrowing journey into the dark corners of this century, marked by a compassionate approach and even a fillip of optimism at the end.

Set in 1947, the story is narrated by Stingo, a young Southern writer. Newly arrived in Brooklyn, he strikes up a friendship with Sophie, a non-Semitic survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and Nathan, her brilliant but unstable Jewish boyfriend.

Between them, these figures embody such concepts as Jewish suffering, European ambivalence, and American inaction. The main theme of the story is the mental and moral turbulence that has been a pervasive legacy of the Holocaust, a subject still crying out for study and understanding. In its most memorable episodes, the film probes the lingering presence of the Holocaust in the lives of those affected by it, whether directly or indirectly.

As written and directed by Alan J. Pakula, a generally tasteful and intelligent filmmaker, the movie leaves out most of the book's boisterous subplots. It also jettisons the autobiographical and confessional elements that Styron/Stingo indulged in, further tightening the story and eliminating some of its cheaper elements.

The end product is occasionally abrupt in its transitions. But abruptness is not a bad correlative for twists of experience that are dictated by the inscrutable logic of history, rather than the everyday flow of personality. It heightens the urgency of its message about the need to confront and come to terms with the residue of recent Western history.

Although the performances are of mixed quality, their level is generally high. Meryl Streep gives her deepest and fullest screen portrayal to date, carrying the complicated Sophie from sunny Brooklyn afternoons to the reeking mud fields of Auschwitz. With her studied Polish accent and catchy mannerisms, she verges on gimmicky ''schtick'' now and then. Yet she usually finds the hidden crux of even frivolous-seeming moments, bringing out some quirk of character that adds to the film's cumulative effect. From a French comedy

The Toy is based on a middling-good French comedy of a few years back, by filmmaker Francis Veber. The plot is set in motion by a spoiled little boy, who is offered anything he wants from a toy store. What he insists on ''owning'' is a man employed there - who is talked into humoring the child, and eventually becomes the friend he desperately needs.

If it had been handled properly, Donner's version of ''The Toy'' could have been more resonant than its French forebear, since it stresses the implications of racial prejudice and class distinction. The child is the son of a white millionaire, while the ''toy'' is a black journalist whose color has kept him out of work in the Southern community where he lives.

Donner plays up the socially conscious angle. In fact, at the climax, the ''toy'' and his young pal print a newspaper exposing the corruption of the millionaire, thus crusading for justice and enlightenment.

But good intentions count for little when stacked up against the sheer messiness of this movie, which stumbles from comedy to drama to vulgar farce without making a single scene work. It's sad to see the talents of Pryor and Jackie Gleason wasted, along with a well-meaning and sometimes clever story line. There's little excuse for such trite and careless filmmaking from experienced Hollywood workers. ''The Toy'' is a most disappointing Christmas present.

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