''Free Willy'': High hopes -- The family whale flick garners the highest screening scores in Warner Brothers' test-marketing history

By Ryan Murphy
Updated April 16, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Could a killer whale blow away Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, and the rest of the summer movie competition? In test screenings, Warner Bros.’ Free Willy, which is being dubbed ”an aquatic E.T.,” is not only outperforming Batman and Lethal Weapon 3, it’s getting the highest scores in the studio’s test-marketing history.

Although children’s films always earn inflated numbers in test screenings, insiders say Free Willy is charming adults as well — the trailer received an enthusiastic response at the recent ShoWest convention in Las Vegas. ”I cried from beginning to end,” says one jaded player who has seen the film. ”That’s the type of movie this is.”

The $20 million film, directed by Simon Wincer (Quigley Down Under), revolves around a young boy (newcomer Jason James Richter) who devises a complicated scheme to free a friendly mammal from a run-down aquarium. Warner, realizing it may have a potential smash on its hands, has moved into marketing high gear. Movie posters and trailers will emphasize the morose face of Willy in captivity. A series of sneak previews closer to the film’s June 18 release are being planned to help spread good word of mouth. ”Basically,” says a Warner source, ”we’re going to screen the s— out of it.”

As of yet, competing studios have no plans to get out of the way of this potential killer whale, but such moves seem imminent. Says one source, laughing: ”Everybody’s afraid of being Moby Dicked around.”