Thanks to video, sequel could shag a bigger following

Marketing: The original `Austin Powers' wasn't a big hit until it hit the rental outlets, setting up a captive audience for `The Spy Who Shagged Me.'

June 11, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

When "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" was released on May 2, 1997, no bells went off. No whistles blew. No puffs of annunciating smoke came from the nation's theaters proclaiming it the unlikeliest hit of the year.

But throughout that summer, the goofy, retro comedy developed a following, earning a respectable $54 million at the box office. Then it was released on video.

That's when the puffs of smoke went up.

What started as a cultish sleeper hit turned into a juggernaut, outselling every video of the year and generating a phenomenal amount of repeat rentals. Which means that "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," opening in theaters today, is poised to become a huge hit.

"This has happened once before, with `Lethal Weapon,' " says marketing executive Marvin Antonowsky. "The video became such an enormous success that the sequel did better than the original. The video brought in new people who wouldn't venture to see the picture in theaters, and they became a prime audience for the sequel." Antonowsky predicted an opening weekend box office for "The Spy Who Shagged Me" in the $30 million to $40 million range.

No one predicted "Austin's" success. Michael De Luca, president of production at New Line Cinema, remembers being piqued by Mike Myers' script, as well as the writer/actor's video montage of clips from the 1960s and 1970s spy thrillers he was spoofing. But when the movie was completed, he recalls, "it didn't fit neatly into any comedy category, and we didn't exactly have inspiring test screenings."

The company decided to market the film to teen-agers and college students, hoping they would get Myers' retro look and goofy humor. But when the movie landed in theaters, it proved to be popular with a much larger audience.

"It was an experience for people to go as a group," De Luca says. "People were having `Austin Nights,' it was like a ritual, which is kind of neat. You can never predict that, but it became a fun group experience, which began with families and kids going, like `Ace Ventura.' "

De Luca attributes the "Austin Powers" phenomenon to timing. "Comedy got bigger as a genre," he recalls of the summer of 1997. "It was the beginning of `There's Something About Mary,' `The Wedding Singer,' `The Waterboy.' Comedy was always consistent but it seemed like another wave was coming. I think we were at the beginning of that."

But what about "Austin's" miraculous rebirth on video? Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Inc., notes that it's rare for a film to catch on with audiences in its post-theatrical run. He attributes the movie's video legs to Austin himself.

"People love to quote him. The first one was very quotable, and the new one's very quotable as well." Dergarabedian adds that the audiences who saw "Austin Powers" when it was first released talked about the film so much that their friends -- who might have ignored the comedy for "The Lost World" or other summer blockbusters, felt compelled to see what all the fuss was about.

"People who didn't see it in theaters rented it on video, and then they watched it over and over," Dergarabedian says. "And it really lends itself to watching over and over. It's especially good to watch at home because there's no laughter to drown out the lines."

Video Americain co-owner Mike Bradley says that the "Austin Powers" video has been especially popular during holidays. With its naughtier humor couched in Austin's wholesome persona, he says "Austin Powers" has proved to be the one movie that can please everyone in the family.

"It's a movie that a family could watch, especially with teen-agers," Bradley says. "I don't know if they get all the references to the Bond films, especially the younger teen-agers, but when you have a bunch of relatives over and you have eight teen-agers in the house, it's a good thing to put on. It's innocuous in that sense."

Bradley says that it's been difficult to keep the original "Austin Powers" video on the shelves during the weeks building up to the release of "The Spy Who Shagged Me." "They've been going out like crazy," he says. "As sequels go, it's no `Star Wars,' but it's close."

Steve Appel, co-owner of the Nouveau home furnishings store, saw "Austin Powers" when it first came out. "The true hipsters went to that one. We all knew it was going to be a cool movie. Everyone else thought it would be like another little funny film, like `The Waterboy' or something. Now it's the talk of every dining table in America."

Appel says that Austin's retro-kitsch look, anachronistic language and free-love credo offer a soothing counterpoint to pre-millennial anxiety. "It's great because it loosens people up, it makes them laugh, it's not that `Star Wars' shoot-em-up, high-tech, Internet, everything-everybody's-into-these-days," he says. "It's color, it's music, it's sexuality, it's an unattractive person being sexy and hip. It's not like everyone wants to look like Mike Myers, they just want to talk like him!"

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