Los Angeles Times

February 11, 1998, Wednesday, Home Edition



There's an L.A. Confidential mystery left unsolved.

How can a film with near-unanimous excellent reviews, nearly one year of great Hollywood buzz and a slew of honors, including a best picture Oscar nomination on Tuesday, under-perform so badly at the box office? And was the movie sold short by its distributor, Warner Bros.?

Those questions about the film noir saga set in early 1950s Los Angeles have perplexed executives at Warners, producers at New Regency Productions, L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson and just about everyone else in Hollywood.

So far, the film has grossed $ 42 million domestically since September. Put into perspective, that's less than what Titanic does over two weekends and not even half of what a more forgettable film like Flubber did.

Hanson, nominated for best director, places the blame on the initial Warner marketing campaign, which he believes gave the impression the film was a cops-and-robbers saga. As a result, he says, the film was narrowly sold to the male audience.

"In my opinion, the original marketing campaign was a misstep," Hanson said. "It was cops and guns. That's not what the movie is. It was labeling the movie in a very diminutive way."

That criticism doesn't sit well with Chris Pula, a maverick executive who was fired as head of the struggling studio's marketing in December after repeated clashes with Warner's more rigid style and amid a string of Warner Bros. box-office disappointments, including Mad City, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Postman.

"You have a director who has made a very good film doing the easy thing by blaming the marketing," Pula said. "Just because every critic loved it does not mean it should make $ 100 million."

The film, adapted from James Ellroy's novel, is an epic film noir based around a multiple slaying at a late-night Los Angeles cafe. The ensemble cast features such relative unknowns as Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe as competing cops, along with more familiar stars Danny DeVito as a sleazy tabloid reporter, Kevin Spacey as a celebrity detective and Kim Basinger, nominated for best supporting actress for her portrayal of a stylish prostitute.

Hoping to make some amends, Warner Bros., clearly confident L.A. Confidential would reap Oscar nominations, had already set in motion a plan to expand the film into more theaters this Friday. Now playing in around 300 theaters, L.A. Confidential this weekend will expand to more than 800.

"We think this film has a lot of life in it," said Barry Reardon, Warner distribution chief who admits he is puzzled the film hasn't done better. "We always believed in this film, and still believe in it."

In giving the film a second life, Warner and producer New Regency hope to reinvent the film's marketing campaign to emphasize the awards as well as feature some of the feeling and humor missing from the earlier campaign.

"This is a story of emotions and characters. Yes, it's about danger, but also humor. You want to make the movie look like a place you want to visit," Hanson said.

New Regency, sources said, plans to spend $ 5 million in marketing. Ads will heavily stress critics' awards as well as the film's nine Oscar nominations, which tied it for second with Good Will Hunting in total nominations. Both films trailed Titanic, with its 14 nominations.

"Warner Bros. is going to maximize the potential for a second chance to create more box office, and at the same time, are improving the odds of winning some, if not all, of the awards we are nominated for," said Michael Nathanson, one of the film's producers who is now president of MGM Pictures.

But history is working against the film getting a solid second chance. While it isn't unusual for some films to get a boost from Oscar nominations and awards, usually they are small, often independent, movies that weren't widely available to moviegoers because they were released on relatively few screens.

L.A. Confidential has already come and gone in major multiplexes, opening in September in 769 theaters, eventually peaking at 1,625. "There's very little history of salvaging a movie. In movie marketing, you create an identity for these films. Once it's created, you can't flip-flop. You can get a little boost from the Oscars, but not a whole lot," said a top marketing executive at a Warner rival. The executive believes that the movie should have been sold in the same spirit of a John Grisham thriller.

Still, it continues to play in theaters at a time in its life when most films would be on the video launch pad.

Warner Bros.' Reardon said that there are exceptions in which Oscars gave films a good boost long after they had been released. One, he says, was Warner's own Unforgiven starring Clint Eastwood, which benefited in early 1993 after it was nominated for, and eventually won, the Oscar for best picture.

Executives point to a variety of reasons why L.A. Confidential hasn't performed better.

For starters, there was ongoing turmoil last year at Warner Bros., and in its marketing department, which up until last year had been one of the industry's most stable. Former marketing chief Rob Friedman took a bigger job as a vice chairman at Paramount Pictures, succeeded by Pula who had previously earned praise for his unusual, often irreverent, marketing campaigns at New Line Cinema. But he never meshed at Warner.

New Regency President David Matalon says that the film's rich complexity worked against it in generating word of mouth. He said that although the film clearly generated good word of mouth, research indicates people found it hard to describe the complicated story line concisely to friends.

Also working against the film has been the demographics. According to Reardon, L.A. Confidential didn't play nearly as well in smaller cities as it did in major urban areas, and did not draw younger audiences as the studio hoped.

Pula disputes criticism that the film was marketed narrowly, adding that there were seven television spots, some of which were aimed at female viewers. He said other factors, such as the lack of big-name, younger stars hurt as did the glut of films Hollywood keeps releasing that makes it harder for good films to perform.

Still, Pula argues that a case can be made that the film did better than it could have given the challenges.

"Realistically, this is a 2 1/2-hour, thick, complicated noir vehicle that frankly has done better than any in the past," Pula said.

Some critics of the way Warner handled the film have said that it shows how major studios are too focused on marketing star-driven, action blockbusters at the expense of quality pictures.

Hanson acknowledges that the film was difficult to sell, with its myriad subplots and characters.

Noted Hanson: "Studios are so used to having a big star to hang the campaign on. When you get into emotion and characters, you're talking about something else. From Here to Eternity was about romance in the surf, not the bombing of Pearl Harbor. You can't say Casablanca is just about a letter of transit."

Still, he credits Warner's willingness to give it a second shot.

"Corporations tend not to like to admit mistakes. I'm happy Warner Bros. did that in this case," Hanson said. "They said we made a misstep, and we have a chance to correct it."