'Platform' strategy works for hard-to-sell movies like 'The Doctor'

August 27, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

Usually, the fight for screen space at the nation's theaters is a bruising one. But sometimes, Hollywood studios actually don't want their movies to open on many screens. It's a strategy called "platforming," and in the case of Disney-Touchstone's "The Doctor," it appears to be working.

"The Doctor," starring William Hurt as a cocky surgeon who experiences the cold side of the medical system when he develops cancer, opened July 26 in six theaters. "It's a movie that we knew critics and audiences would respond to," says Touchstone President David Hoberman.

It is also a movie that was destined to be a tough sell: Despite his impressive critical standing, Hurt is not a major box-office star, and the subject matter is a downer. There's no small-arms fire, and not even a hint of sex. So Disney's strategy was to open it slowly, let positive reviews settle into place and hope for good word of mouth from audiences. In other words, to get business the old-fashioned way -- by earning it.

By last week, "The Doctor" was playing in 800 theaters, earning nearly $6,000 per screen last weekend and grossing nearly $14 million. And it appears to have plenty of steam left. "I've never, ever had this kind of response to one of my movies," said Hoberman, who continues to receive phone calls and letters from all over the country.

Disney used a similar platforming strategy several months ago with "Green Card," a love story that starred French actor Gerard Depardieu and American actress Andie MacDowell -- not exactly household names with U.S. audiences. And Miramax slowly rolled out the critically acclaimed "The Grifters," beginning with only six theaters, as did Warner Bros. with "Defending Your Life," which opened in only three cities.

"Platforming can be very useful in a film that doesn't have a hook" like a big box-office star or a movie with lots of special effects, said Phil Garfinkle, senior vice president of Entertainment Data Inc., because it gives a film time to build word of mouth.

John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations, also noted that studios can test the waters with a platform release and decide whether it is worth spending more money on prints and advertisements. These days, prints and ads can cost as much as producing a movie.

Garfinkle added that platforming can be risky: "What if you give the party but nobody comes?"

* There is nothing like having the good fortune to have a movie project dealing with a subject that suddenly appears on the front pages of almost every newspaper throughout the world.

Warner Bros. has been developing "Liar's Poker," based on Michael Lewis' 1989 best-selling account of his days as a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers during the freewheeling '80s. Last week, in the latest scandal to hit Wall Street, the brokerage powerhouse was suspended for violating bidding rules at Treasury securities auctions. Salomon's chief executive, John Gutfreund, and two other top officials resigned.

But will the latest news make the studio any more eager to greenlight the film? Jay Presson Allen ("Cabaret," "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"), who's currently writing the screenplay for producers Thom Mount ("Bull Durham," "Tequila Sunrise") and Norman Twain and director Barry Sonnenfeld ("The Addams Family"), thinks it might. "It doesn't hurt to have the cover of the book on television several nights running," says the writer, who's vacationing in Italy. "The studio must sit up and take notice. Michael Lewis' book is in almost every news report. The book will probably sell another 100,000 copies."

Although her screenplay will have nothing to do with the current scandal, Allen says she's been following the latest events at Salomon closely. "I was thinking to myself that if somebody said to do a sequel, this is pretty much what I would've written."

Producer Twain is no stranger to newsworthy movies. "Lean on Me," which he also produced for Warners several years back, was based on controversial school principal Joe Clark. A Time magazine profile of Clark hit the stands before the movie's release, adding to the film's appeal.

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