”How does it feel?” laughs Curtis Hanson, repeating a question with ain’t it obvious emphasis. ”It’s painful!” The director is referring to the fate of ”Wonder Boys,” a $35 million film that garnered some of the best reviews of the year, only to gross a paltry $18.7 million. ”When you’re making a movie, you get this false sense of control,” says Hanson, whose ”L.A. Confidential” won two Oscars in 1998. ”But after the movie’s done, it’s a whole new deal.” That’s when the studio begins its job of marketing a film, and, all too often, packaging it off to an early death.
But in Hollywood, sometimes even heaven can wait. In an extremely rare move, Paramount Pictures will relaunch ”Wonder Boys” on Nov. 8. It’s nearly unheard of for a studio to give a box office failure a second chance, but Paramount’s abiding faith in the film and loyalty to the talent (Hanson and stars Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jr., Tobey Maguire, and Katie Holmes) have prompted them to admit to and revise marketing mistakes, including a new ad campaign (potential cost: $10 million) and the release date it should have had in the first place.
Granted, Hanson’s movie was never an easy sell. Based on Michael Chabon’s acclaimed novel, ”Wonder Boys”’ charms lie in its meandering and character driven plot — one comically hellish weekend in the life of a shaggy, pot smoking English professor (Douglas) struggling to finish the anticipated follow up to his first novel. ”It’s a hard movie to slice up into a group of 30 second sound bites,” Paramount vice chairman Rob Friedman says with some understatement.
No argument from Hanson, who was attracted to the novel because of its ambiguities and complexities — qualities he fears studios are increasingly dismissing as too challenging. ”Unfortunately for moviegoers and moviemakers, there’s this mechanical way that pictures open,” Hanson says of the blockbuster driven industry. ”That’s okay for certain movies. But any film wanting to be something different really suffers.” Michael Douglas agrees: ”’Wonder Boys’ was a marketing challenge. But generally, I think we’re seeing that the majors have a more difficult time with fare that is not ‘meat and potatoes.”’
Paramount’s difficulties began with the film’s release date. ”Boys” was originally slated for December 1999. But backlogged with Oscar baiting pics like ”The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Paramount execs began debating two alternatives: February or fall 2000. They settled on Feb. 23, one week after Oscar showered ”American Beauty” and ”The Cider House Rules” with 15 nominations combined. Hanson believes the buzz behind those films (which were both still in theaters) cost ”Boys” some coin, given they were pursuing the same audience: sophisticated, literate adults. Maguire, who also starred in Miramax’s ”Cider,” implies the problem went even further. ”It was definitely interesting to watch the campaigns for ”Cider House” and ”Wonder Boys” unfold,” says the actor, who admired Miramax’s TLC: The studio timed ”Cider”’s release for awards season, cultivated word of mouth with press screenings, and rolled it out slowly. ”But I’m an actor,” adds Maguire. ”The last thing I want to do is second guess someone whose expertise is in marketing.”
Hanson and Douglas ultimately felt the same, deferring to Paramount over strategy. ”Boys” got a wide release, bowing on more than 1,200 screens. The posters and prints ads — a full face of Douglas, decked out as his rumpled character — tried to tap into the ”Wall Street” Oscar winner’s celebrity while implying a different sort of role. Instead, the image provoked derision from the same critics who loved the film. In retrospect, even Douglas wishes he’d nixed the photo: ”I looked somewhere close to Alfred E. Newman in drag. It kind of left you wondering, ‘What is this?”’
Moviegoers apparently wondered the same thing. ”Boys”’ opening weekend box office drew $5.8 million. Paramount attempted some emergency CPR, quickly cutting new TV ads. ”We were convinced this movie could perform at a higher level,” says Friedman. ”But it was like an aircraft carrier: You couldn’t really turn that baby around.”
The rerelease campaign now positions the film as an ensemble. A new trailer, cut by Hanson, quotes from the glowing reviews. And yes, Paramount is rolling it out slowly — something Friedman admits they should have done the first time. As for relaunching Nov. 8, he says, ”we wanted to make sure we could continue to play through awards season.”
Attracting nominations is a major aim of the rerelease. Insiders believe the film’s best chances rest in the actor (Douglas), adapted screenplay (by Steve Kloves), and original song (Bob Dylan?s ”Things Have Changed”) categories. Hanson hopes the film can cop some supporting actor nods, too. Downey, who last spring was still doing jail time, wouldn’t mind the consideration: ”I don’t think they understand: I need it,” he jokes. ”You know, other people might want it or deserve it…but I actually need this.”
At the very least, Paramount’s decision to rerelease has scored considerable goodwill from ”Boys”’ creator and stars. ”That Paramount would hold off on [ancillary revenues] like home video and cable to give the movie another shot in the theaters — that means more to me than an extra $10 million at the box office,” says a grateful Hanson. ”The second chance is its own reward.”
”It’s just a classy thing to do,” says Maguire. ”I hate to predict whether it’ll make a bunch of money — it seems like it can’t be a hugely profitable thing to do. But you know what? That’s what I really like about it.”
(Additional reporting by Dan Snierson)