Nothing succeeds quite like excess

Hype saturates our media age, and the next big event is always just around the corner. So what else is new?

May 23, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

Fans can't wait for the movie to come out. For years they've chattered endlessly among themselves, debating who should be cast, speculating on the fate of certain characters (would they even show up in the film?), desperately hanging on every word that leaks out of the set.

The nation's press trips over itself, running story after story about a film that is months away from opening. Advance screenings are closely guarded secrets; anyone lucky enough to get into one becomes an automatic Big Man On Campus.

You think we're talking about "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace." Pshaw. Just goes to show how short people's memories are. No, we're going back to December 1939 and the opening of "Gone With the Wind."

" 'Gone With the Wind' was a real phenomenon," says film historian Robert Osborne, best known as host for cable's Turner Classic Movies. "All that hype fanned the flames for those three years from when the book was published until the movie came out. Luckily, it all paid off."

Fortunately for producer David O. Selznick, the film became that rarest of creatures, something that actually lived up to its hype.

Whether the hoopla surrounding "The Phantom Menace" plays out as well remains to be seen. But industry experts are already casting doubt on what, just a few months back, seemed like a sure thing: that "Menace" would top the $600 million box-office performance of 1997's "Titanic." And the critical drubbing it's taken in the nation's press, where reviews have been lukewarm at best, could spell trouble if not peril (even with the worst critical drubbing, "Menace" is assured of making big bucks).

Hype is nothing new. More than a century ago, P.T. Barnum proved there's a sucker born every minute, hyping his traveling shows and getting people to pay good money to see the most amazing, fantastic, colossal, phantasmagoric creature that ever walked the Earth: an elephant. Around the same time, William Cody took a bunch of cowboys and Indians on the road, started calling himself Buffalo Bill, and made a fortune.

Admittedly, there are more venues for hype today than ever before. Word about "Gone With the Wind" spread largely through the written press and word of mouth; today's hypesters take advantage of television and the Internet.

"We have so much media now, and so much need for a hook with a story," says Osborne. "It used to be the movie studios that started the hype. Now it's the media itself that's started doing it."

"I just don't think the hype works that well to influence you," says Larry Mintz, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, who concentrates on popular culture. "There may be some people out there who will say, 'You've hyped this too much. You'd better thrill me now, because I'm angry, angry because of the hype.'... I think there are some people who would like to see ["Phantom Menace"] fail because it is so big, and because Lucas is seen to be such hot stuff."

So, is hype a help or a hindrance? Just because something is hyped, does that make it worth noting? The jury may be out on "Phantom Menace," but enough examples exist outside the "Star Wars" realm -- not only in film, but also in TV, books, music and even the culinary arts -- to suggest that hype doesn't guarantee anything. Except more hype.


"Cleopatra" (1963) -- This one got all sorts of hype, for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, it was, at the time, the most expensive film ever made. For another, it starred major box-office draw (and scandal-sheet mainstay) Elizabeth Taylor. And for another, during the filming Taylor met Richard Burton, a pairing that would ultimately lead to marriage, scandal, huge diamond rings and innumerable tabloid headlines. But the film was pilloried by critics, tanked at the box office and nearly sank the studio (which, 24 years later, would release a little flick called "Star Wars").

"Titanic" (1997) -- As James Cameron's multimillion-dollar epic was being made down in Mexico, costs started mounting to an alarming degree (final estimates went as high as $200 million). Anyone spending that much money had to have a disaster on his hands, screamed the media, recalling such bloated efforts as "Heaven's Gate," "Inchon" and "Tora, Tora, Tora." Things looked bleak for Cameron -- until the film was released and became a mega-hit. Although some critics insisted it was second-rate (OK, the dialogue was weak), it's hard to argue with a film that won a record-tying 11 Oscars, not to mention the $600 million-plus it earned at the North American box office.


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