”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 this 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.”