Two come out of the blue 'There's Something About Mary' and 'Smoke Signals' make it big.


August 23, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

It's official. "There's Something About Mary," the gross-out comedy starring Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz, is the sleeper hit of the summer, taking on a mantle that "My Best Friend's Wedding" wore last summer and "Babe" the summer before that.

Sleepers - big hits that seem to come out of nowhere, taking film studios, critics and audiences alike by surprise - now seem to be staples of the summer movie season, on a par with the biggest explosions and the most humiliating bomb. But in an age when marketing and publicity are manipulated to within a hair's breadth - when there are computer programs that predict a film's box-office performance before the cameras even start running - is such a thing as an authentic sleeper even possible?

And with the advent of studios like Miramax Films, which has mastered the art of bringing otherwise obscure movies to the attention - and attendance - of wide audiences, has the definition of "sleeper" been blurred into meaninglessness?

Todd McCarthy, chief film critic for the trade magazine Variety, anointed "There's Something About Mary," which has grossed more than $80 million since its release on July 17, "a genuine sleeper" in a recent issue of the magazine.

McCarthy defines a sleeper as "a film [that] is relatively unknown, that comes out of the blue or left field. Nothing in particular is expected of it, unlike the films coming out by Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick, which can't not have high expectations on them."

McCarthy adds that because so much calculation goes into making and marketing films - and because of the high profiles of festivals such as Sundance and Cannes as well as a plethora of advance word on the Internet - "it's harder for a film to come out of the blue."

Another movie that has performed unexpectedly well this summer is "Smoke Signals," a drama by Native American filmmakers Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre, which is on its way to clearing $4 million at the box office.

David Kaminow, senior vice president of marketing for Miramax Films, who oversaw the marketing campaign for "Smoke Signals," calls the film a sleeper. Sleepers "rely on word- of-mouth to build into what becomes known as a sleeper, and that very much happened with 'Smoke Signals,' " he says. "It pretty much started as a classic art-house film. It opened in New York and L.A., then expanded into the top 10 markets, and then the top 20. It's now entering its 10th week, and we're getting ready to cross over $4 million, and for this film, that's a great success. The art-house market in particular lately has been just as crowded as the mainstream, and this is one of the breakthroughs of the season."

Kaminow says that "Smoke Signals" is playing in the top 60 markets in the country, a number Miramax always planned to hit. "What's changed is how deep we've gone in particular markets. We're taking it into more mainstream theaters and locations." In Maryland, for example, the film has played at the Rotunda Theatre and will expand to Towson, Columbia and Gaithersburg on Friday.

For his part, McCarthy takes issue with calling "Smoke Signals" a true sleeper. For one thing, the film won the audience award and filmmakers trophy at the Sundance Film Festival this year, "so it's not much of a surprise," he says. "The nature of the film, the subject matter and the people who made it are not your usual suspects, but it did have some imprimatur going in. For the audience it might be an unknown thing, but for the industry it's a known quantity."

"To me, it's not about having industry buzz, it's about having buzz amongst the moviegoing public," Kaminow says. "The day it opened, if you had asked people, 'Have you heard of 'Smoke Signals'? less than 1 percent would have heard of it.

"The term 'sleeper' gets thrown around a lot," Kaminow says. "For me, it's a movie that, when it first comes out, no one's really paying all that much attention to it, but then eight weeks later you find yourself with a hit on your hands you never expected."

But didn't Miramax know it had a hit when it bought "Smoke Signals" at Sundance last January? "We knew we had the film, and we knew we had the ability to take it to the next level," Kaminow admits, adding that what Miramax does - taking what would otherwise be a niche film and bringing it to a larger audience - may be best termed a "crossover/sleeper" phenomenon.

"And I guess with our new definition of sleeper vs. crossover, I would define 'Smoke Signals' as more of a crossover."

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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