Low-budget movies or blockbusters? Hollywood to let box office decide
Hollywood can't decide whether it's a spendthrift or a skinflint.Skip to next paragraph
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* 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.
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.