''Like Water for Chocolate'' breaks records -- The Spanish-language movie has become the highest-grossing foreign language film in decades

Pop quiz: What film based on a current New York Times best-seller just broke a box-office record and is still going strong? If you guessed Jurassic Park, you’re right — and wrong.

The correct answer here is Like Water for Chocolate, a Spanish-language movie from Mexico directed by Alfonso Arau, husband of Laura Esquivel, who wrote the 1989 novel. In 23 weeks, Like Water for Chocolate, a magic-realist love story that centers on food, has made more than $13 million for distributor Miramax to become the highest-grossing foreign-language film since 1979’s La Cage aux Folles — and the little movie is still making a half million dollars each week.

”It is a miracle,” Arau says.

Well, that’s one explanation, but savvy marketing strategies have also helped make this an extraordinarily successful summer for offbeat movies. In a season especially crowded with blockbusters like Jurassic (total gross: $271 million), The Firm ($113 million), and In the Line of Fire ($54 million), a diverse group of smaller films — Like Water for Chocolate, Menace II Society, Much Ado About Nothing, and Orlando — has revealed a surprising national appetite for art-house fare just when lines for mindless movies are at their longest.

”The mythical idea that only in the fall is there an audience for these movies has been exploded,” declares Kenneth Branagh, the British actor who directed Much Ado About Nothing. And the numbers back him up. Since opening in early May, Much Ado, with an all-star cast that includes Branagh, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, and Michael Keaton, has made more than $14 million on fewer than 300 screens — a fraction of the 1,500 allotted Hollywood’s typical summer movie. Menace II Society, the gritty directorial debut of 21-year-old twins Albert and Allen Hughes, spent six weeks in the top 10 (three more than Last Action Hero) and has already grossed $25 million. And Orlando, a droll episodic drama based on an obscure Virginia Woolf novel, has grossed $2 million in just over 30 theaters.

While those receipts are little more than confetti to major studios — after all, Last Action Hero, which made $15 million in three days, is widely viewed as a disaster — the indies have proved again they can sell a small film to a big audience.

”We looked at Orlando as counterprogramming to Jurassic Park,” says Sony Pictures Classics copresident Tom Bernard, who realized that the film’s outlandish plot (the title character lives for several centuries and changes gender) could draw in ”an intellectual audience, a college-age new-wave audience, and a big gay audience.” Sony negotiated a rerelease of the novel and held screenings for members of such groups as Amnesty International and L.A.’s Gay and Lesbian Media Coalition. But Bernard insists that Orlando‘s audience is ”not a specialized art-movie audience. They see a wide variety of films.”

In Menace II Society, New Line had an especially tough summer sell — a bleak, violent film without stars or heroes. In addition, the company wanted to attract young blacks without alienating white moviegoers. The initial solution included TV commercials on shows that draw blacks (In Living Color, The Arsenio Hall Show, and Martin) and newspaper ads that contained no images from the film, just glowing quotes from reviewers. ”If the critics don’t say it’s all right, white people don’t give a damn about your film,” says codirector Albert Hughes. ”As soon as Siskel and Ebert’s two thumbs came up, I started seeing blond heads in the theater.”

In another effort to broaden the audience, New Line last month changed Menace‘s ads, using a gentle shot of stars Tyrin Turner and Jada Pinkett embracing. The move has angered the Hugheses, who feel the ad misrepresents the film. But it may be paying off: Menace‘s audience — 98 percent black on its opening weekend — is now 25 percent white.

While critical support has a significant impact on smaller movies, the most effective advertising is also the most elusive: word of mouth. ”These are not megabudget movies with big stars and big special effects,” says Miramax marketing exec Gerry Rich. ”They have to be discovered. Like Water for Chocolate is word of mouth at its finest. That’s why we have such incredible momentum in our 23rd week.” And the book (No. 4 on the Times hardcover list) is another natural spur: ”It’s so helpful for the book to get publicity on the film pages and the film to get publicity on the book pages,” says Rich.

Small movies do have one decided advantage: They’re built to last. ”We build anticipation [so] that by the time the picture gets to town, everybody runs to see it,” says Sony’s Bernard. ”There’s a time connection between cities after a New York opening. A city like Boston would take three weeks for word of mouth to hit, Chicago six weeks, Hawaii three months.”

Proximity to New York is only part of the equation. Tucson gets films seven weeks after New York — and three weeks earlier than Washington, D.C. — because, says Bernard, ”Tucson is influenced by Los Angeles; Washington is a city unto itself. People don’t [reach out] to other places for information.”

When the strategy works, it can blossom into months of revenue. Last year’s Howards End ran for an astonishing 70 weeks and grossed $25 million. Samuel Goldwyn Company, which hopes to keep Much Ado playing through next year’s Oscars, plans to open the film in another 100 theaters shortly after Labor Day to grab the back-to-school crowd.

Don’t think Hollywood isn’t aware that small movies can mean big business. Last spring, after Miramax’s success with The Crying Game, Disney bought the company for more than $60 million; the studio also has a deal with art-house kings Ismail Merchant and James Ivory (Howards End). And last month Joe Roth’s Caravan Pictures (another Disney arm) signed for two movies from the Hughes brothers. But is this mixture of big-budget bravado and small-film subtlety truly meant to be? Merchant-Ivory’s first Disney project may offer a glimpse of the strange hybrids promised in the future. Coming next year…Thomas Jefferson in Paris, starring Nick Nolte.

Like Water for Chocolate
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