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''Frequency'' becomes the summer's first sleeper hit

EW Online explains why New Line’s potential marketing disaster is finding an audience

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Dennis Quaid, Frequency
Takashi Seida

Along with the predictable box-office heavyweights at the top of the movie chart a week ago was ”Frequency,” the little movie that could. Holding on to No. 5 with a $4.3 million pre-Memorial Day weekend take, the time-travel thriller is astounding its studio, New Line Cinema, with its staying power. While blockbusters like ”Gladiator” and ”U-571” lost 20 percent of their audience the weekend of May 19-21, ”Frequency” surrendered an unusually low 12 percent, beefing up its total take to $30.4 million. Not bad for a flick that cost a middling $30 million.

And there should be more to come. New Line executives expect ”Frequency,” which is marking its fifth week in theaters, to hang on beyond the crowded Memorial Day weekend and eventually gross $45-50 million — a total that, according to Hollywood arithmetic, will turn a decent profit for the studio.

So how does a modest male weeper keep chugging along while ”The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas” and ”Battlefield Earth” plummet? For ”Frequency” star Dennis Quaid, the answer is simple: ”Everyone wishes they could go back and change something about their life. The ‘What If’ factor appeals to us as humans.” David Tuckerman, New Line’s Executive Vice President of Distribution, says the story of supernatural father-son communication especially speaks to the 21 to 35 year olds who are the bulk of the film’s viewers. Better yet, he says, ”Everybody who sees this movie recommends it to someone else.”

Despite initial test-screening ratings that went through the roof (topping the first ”Austin Powers” and equaling the $141 million grossing ”Rush Hour,” two of New Line’s biggest hits), studio executives were worried about how to promote ”Frequency.” The film’s three distinct elements — sci-fi time travel, a father-son relationship, and a murder mystery — posed a problem because they typically appeal to different demographic groups. So after much in-house debate, the studio decided to buy TV ads for an equally disparate lineup of shows, including the NBA playoffs (to target men), morning chat shows and afternoon soap operas (women), and the WB’s prime time dramas (teens and young adults).

Even so, New Line didn’t see immediate results. After ”Frequency” earned a mediocre $9 million during its debut weekend in theaters, it seemed to be headed for a hasty video release. But decent reviews (EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum praised it as an ”unabashedly emotional high-concept thriller”) and growing word-of-mouth from audiences are saving the day. ”I was standing outside an L.A. theater when a couple walked out and said ‘You gotta see ”Frequency” to people waiting for tickets,’ Tuckerman says. ”We couldn’t have paid for a better response.”