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''Congo'''s surprise box office success

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Congo doesn’t star a real 800-pound gorilla, but Paramount’s jungle adventure sure behaved like one in its opening weekend, earning a roaring $24.6 million. Hollywood, which had dismissed the $60 million ape epic after mostly savage reviews, was stunned by the box office tally, one of the year’s biggest. What went right? Among the factors:

The Crichton Connection:
The movie is based on Michael Crichton’s 1980 novel, and Congo‘s ad campaign made the most of it. ”From the best-selling author of Jurassic Park,” an early teaser trailer boasted, pointing out also that the film was produced by Kathleen Kennedy (who was one of Jurassic‘s producers). ”I have to give Paramount credit,” concedes distribution exec Tom Sherak of rival Twentieth Century Fox. ”They made it look like Jurassic Park and turned it into a big event.”

Gump’s Coattails:
Congo awareness began when its initial teaser was attached to last year’s Star Trek Generations. But it really lodged in the public’s consciousness after an extended trailer caught a ride on the home video of Forrest Gump, which has sold 12 million copies since shipping in late April.

Gorilla Warfare:
Promotional tie-ins with Pepsi (Congo 12-packs), Taco Bell (Congo watches), and Kenner (cute, cuddly Congo gorillas) contributed to what Paramount estimates to be $85 million worth of additional advertising — all aimed at the key kid market. ”We were able to create a lot of partnerships with corporate America,” testifies Paramount Pictures vice chairman Barry London.

A Clearing in the Crowd:
Paramount circled June 9 as its intended release date and lucked out when competing action-adventures such as Crimson Tide and Die Hard With a Vengeance opted for earlier May releases.

Of course, the film’s front-runner status was short-lived: Batman Forever knocked it from its perch, as Congo‘s second weekend gross dropped by 57 percent ($10.7 million). It’s still a jungle out there.