For, Friday, July 12, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you attend movies in the Salt Lake area you’ve no doubt noticed that there are 15 multiplexes in the valley and only one of them, the Broadway Centre downtown, shows a movie mix that is different from all the others. Which is to say, if you go to any Megaplex or Cinemark theaters you’ll discover that all of them are playing the same movies.

If you’ve ever wondered why — when you go to, say, Jordan Commons or Jordan Landing and attend a low-budget film at a matinee — you’re the only person in the auditorium … that’s why. It’s a weird phenomenon that makes sense only for the blockbusters. If you want to see ‘Spider-Man: Far from Home’ on opening day you have many, many more choices and every one will be sold out over that first weekend. But if you’re looking for more variety you’ll quickly discover that there is very little.

Those of us of a certain age remember when a ‘Star Wars’ or a ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ would play exclusively in a single theater for many months, sometimes more than a year! So other theaters would get creative, playing smaller independent or foreign films, or bringing back favorite titles from just a few years before. (The Utah 3 downtown brought back ‘Jaws’ in 1979, just four years after it premiered, and did a booming business.)

Then, with the acceptance and proliferation in the early 1980s of home-video rentals — videotape, that is, on VHS or Beta or, for collectors, laser discs — along with multiplex theaters, things began to change. Lower-budget or quirky movies began to go straight to video, skipping theaters altogether. It laid down the formula for what we have today as films that studios feel will have limited appeal skip the multiplexes and head straight to streaming or disc.

Anyway, I wrote about it for the Deseret News in a ‘Hicks on Flicks’ column, published on Sept. 9, 1984, under the headline, ‘A new trend: let movies sit on the shelf.’ And as an offbeat example a movie that looked like it would never come to Salt Lake theaters, I cited ‘The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension.’ (As it happens, a month later the film did open — in a single Salt Lake theater, with zero advertising, where it played to miniscule audiences for just one week.)

This is the story of a movie you may never see in a Salt Lake theater, and it says something about a growing trend in the motion picture industry today.

The film is “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai” (subtitled “Across the Eighth Dimension”), and the trend is for major studios to shelve movies that look like they won’t earn a heavy profit the first weekend of their release. It’s a trend not unlike that which plagues commercial-television series, as networks refuse to give sitcoms an opportunity to grow, develop and gain an audience.

In the case of movies, they are often tested on the coasts, New York and Los Angeles, though occasionally in various other markets, and if a film doesn’t perform well, it is simply not released to the rest of the country. Losses are recouped through overseas and video sales. (Salt Lake City has always been a test market for family-oriented films, such as “The Man from Snowy River” and “Phar Lap,” both huge successes that went on to achieve success in other parts of the country. But we’ve had our share of box-office clunkers, too, like Disney’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” which was never seen in theaters around most of the country.)

In fact, with the advent of the booming video market, most movies do eventually come around on cassette, whether or not they played theatrically. And it’s beginning to look like that is the easy way out for a movie perceived by the studios as a potential box-office flop.

Studios skip the theatrical market for certain films for various reasons, all of them linked to a financial base, but most often because a film is difficult to sell; it may seem unworthy of the expense of ever-rising costs of advertising and shipping prints around the country.

Of course, sometimes a movie that looks like a sure-fire moneymaker turns into a big-budget bomb, as with “Rhinestone” this past summer. There’s no such thing as a sure thing. And a few major flops like that add up quickly, giving studio executives cold feet about films that don’t look like sure-fire hits.


But are potential theatrical revenues being overlooked? Would movies like “Independence Day,” “Daniel,” “One From the Heart,” “Mike’s Murder,” “I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can,” “Crackers” and “Buckaroo Banzai” find an audience for their offbeat sensibilities if they were given the chance, if word-of-mouth were allowed to build instead of those movies being routed directly to cable television and videocassette rentals for the quick-buck recoup?

Somewhere in its post-production stage someone at 20th Century-Fox must have seen some potential in “Buckaroo Banzai.” In fact, someone must have thought it would be a major hit since critics around the country have been receiving advance publicity on that film for months. I can’t remember another film that has generated so much advance marketing, only to be shunned by its distributor, with the possible exception of “Daniel.”

“Banzai” still has a chance for wider distribution, if it fares better in markets outside L.A. and the Big Apple (it is scheduled to open in a few at the end of September). Don’t get too hopeful but at least Fox is giving “Banzai” a chance that most “difficult” movies don’t get. Recent past experience has shown that a difficult sell is generally dropped by the studio. And there’s no question that this film is indeed a difficult sell.

The title character, Buckaroo Banzai, is a modern-day hero, but not a superhero. He only seems that way. Banzai is a physicist, a racecar driver, the leader of a rock band and something of a universal troubleshooter. In the film, the title character apparently battles villainous aliens from the eighth dimension, headed by one Dr. Lizardo.

According to national reviews, “Banzai” is funny, hip, outrageous and a mishmash of several different styles, with references to various movie genres. (Sounds like my kind of film.) The cast is impressive, headed by respected Broadway actor Peter Weller as the title character, John Lithgow as Lizardo, Ellen Barkin as the love interest and Jeff Goldblum as a New Jersey cowboy.


But is it funny? Is it involving? Does it work? These are questions that can be answered only by those who have seen it. The real question, in the mind of Hollywood, is, “Will it attract enough people to make it a worthy box-office contender?”

Whether or not a particular movie makes a killing on its opening weekend has as much to do with timing as it does with marketing strategy, and apparently “Buckaroo Banzai” is not attracting big crowds thus far. But this time of year, aside from “Tightrope” and “Ghostbusters,” what is?

Had “Buckaroo Banzai” opened earlier in the summer, when bizarre science fiction is expected, it might have fared better. But, unless these new regional engagements bring a new box-office status to this film, it will doubtless go the way of all financial flops — videocassette.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for videocassettes. Without them we’d never see some of these films. But I still wonder how movies like “Cheech & Chong’s The Corsican Brothers,” “Meatballs, Part II,” “Making the Grade” and “Sheena” manage to be released through major studios when other, obviously more worthy, efforts cannot.

And my guess is each of those will also be on videocassette before “Buckaroo Banzai.”