Autumn's lackluster box office -- Why ''Quiz Show'' failed while ''Pulp Fiction'' soared

By Anne Thompson
Updated November 25, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Hollywood defines fall as a season of lofty expectations, when big stars appear in high-profile prestige films and shoot for success and respect. Webster’s defines fall as a ”loss of greatness, collapse.” As the 1994 fall movie season winds down, it appears the studios could learn a thing or two from the dictionary. The last few months have truly been the era of Terminal Velocity — and the Hollywood films that didn’t crash to earth never got off the ground in the first place. We looked at fall’s few winners and few dozen losers and culled some do’s and don’ts for Hollywood hit making.

Don’t shut out the audience. Quiz Show stepped out smartly with great reviews but quickly stumbled. Some blame a misbegotten ad campaign featuring the back of Ralph Fiennes’ head. Others point to Disney for not giving the film a wide release at the peak of its hype. ”We’re not dealing in fine wine,” says Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen. ”Movies don’t get better with age. If something has the focus of the public, you’d better put it out in theaters.” But Quiz Show itself may not have been accessible to the mainstream. ”The subject matter was so intellectual,” says Disney spokeswoman Terry Press, ”it reached only the most sophisticated group in the country.”

Don’t forget that titles matter. Both the uplifting prison drama The Shawshank Redemption (huh?) and the family film Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale (who?) were saddled with disastrous names. ”The Shawshank Redemption tested higher (in screenings) than A Few Good Men, When Harry Met Sally, and In the Line of Fire,” asserts Castle Rock Pictures president Martin Shafer. ”We thought it was a good enough movie to overcome the negatives — it was a period piece set in prison, with no women-but we couldn’t get audiences in to see it.”

Don’t overspend on vanity projects. Studios often make movies only to be in business with big names. The flops of the fall came courtesy of some of the biggest. No amount of money or soft-focus cinematography could make Warren Beatty a draw for young women or breathe new life into Love Affair. Nor did anyone want to see producer Kevin Costner’s Rapa Nui, an Easter Island epic that never got a national release; Little Giants, a kiddie football film from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin; Radioland Murders, a story idea that sat in limbo more than 20 years before Universal gave George Lucas $10 million to prove it should have stayed there; or Tim Burton’s $18 million biopic Ed Wood, about a director who never made a hit in his life.

Don’t mismatch the star and the movie. Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone earned their respective $12 and $4 million for The Specialist, which got lousy reviews but did big business by giving action audiences just what they wanted. However, while Meryl Streep was touted for her performance in The River Wild, the well-reviewed but costly picture never caught on with action fans. ”They weren’t interested in Meryl,” says one studio executive, ”and her fans don’t think of her as a Rambo type.” And though Charlie Sheen connects when he’s part of a larger ensemble, audiences weaned onHot Shots! didn’t take him seriously as the straight-faced star of Terminal Velocity. ”Sheen,” explains one distribution chief politely, ”needs a supporting cast.”

Do target your audience. Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei in Only You? Melanie Griffith and Ed Harris in Milk Money? Warren Beatty and Annette Bening in Love Affair? No, thanks. This fall’s most successful romantic couple was Allen Payne and Jada Pinkett. Black audiences made a modest hit out of Gramercy’s low-budget, no-star Jason’s Lyric. ”There was no picture out there for a while that worked for the African-American audience,” says Gramercy president Russell Schwartz. ”And no one had sold (that audience) a love story.”