Thursday Aug 24, 2023
Thursday Aug 24, 2023
Thursday Aug 24, 2023
We continue our miniseries on the 1980s movies distributed by Miramax Films, with a look at the films released in 1988.
From Los Angeles, California, the Entertainment Capital of the World, it’s The 80s Movies Podcast. I am your host, Edward Havens. Thank you for listening today.
On this episode, we finally continue with the next part of our look back at the 1980s movies distributed by Miramax Films, specifically looking at 1988.
But before we get there, I must issue another mea culpa. In our episode on the 1987 movies from Miramax, I mentioned that a Kiefer Sutherland movie called Crazy Moon never played in another theatre after its disastrous one week Oscar qualifying run in Los Angeles in December 1987.
I was wrong.
While doing research on this episode, I found one New York City playdate for the film, in early February 1988. It grossed a very dismal $3200 at the 545 seat Festival Theatre during its first weekend, and would be gone after seven days.
Sorry for the misinformation.
1988 would be a watershed year for the company, as one of the movies they acquired for distribution would change the course of documentary filmmaking as we knew it, and another would give a much beloved actor his first Academy Award nomination while giving the company its first Oscar win.
But before we get to those two movies, there’s a whole bunch of others to talk about first.
Of the twelve movies Miramax would release in 1988, only four were from America. The rest would be a from a mixture of mostly Anglo-Saxon countries like the UK, Canada, France and Sweden, although there would be one Spanish film in there.
Their first release of the new year, Le Grand Chemin, told the story of a timid nine-year-old boy from Paris who spends one summer vacation in a small town in Brittany. His mother has lodged the boy with her friend and her friend’s husband while Mom has another baby. The boy makes friends with a slightly older girl next door, and learns about life from her.
Richard Bohringer, who plays the friend’s husband, and Anémone, who plays the pregnant mother, both won Cesars, the French equivalent to the Oscars, in their respective lead categories, and the film would be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of 1987 by the National Board of Review. Miramax, who had picked up the film at Cannes several months earlier, waited until January 22nd, 1988, to release it in America, first at the Paris Theatre in midtown Manhattan, where it would gross a very impressive $41k in its first three days. In its second week, it would drop less than 25% of its opening weekend audience, bringing in another $31k. But shortly after that, the expected Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film did not come, and business on the film slowed to a trickle. But it kept chugging on, and by the time the film finished its run in early June, it had grossed $541k.
A week later, on January 29th, Miramax would open another French film, Light Years. An animated science fiction film written and directed by René Laloux, best known for directing the 1973 animated head trip film Fantastic Planet, Light Years was the story of an evil force from a thousand years in the future who begins to destroy an idyllic paradise where the citizens are in perfect harmony with nature.
In its first three days at two screens in Los Angeles and five screens in the San Francisco Bay Area, Light Years would gross a decent $48,665. Miramax would print a self-congratulating ad in that week’s Variety touting the film’s success, and thanking Isaac Asimov, who helped to write the English translation, and many of the actors who lent their vocal talents to the new dub, including Glenn Close, Bridget Fonda, Jennifer Grey, Christopher Plummer, and Penn and Teller. Yes, Teller speaks. The ad was a message to both the theatre operators and the major players in the industry. Miramax was here. Get used to it.
But that ad may have been a bit premature.
While the film would do well in major markets during its initial week in theatres, audience interest would drop outside of its opening week in big cities, and be practically non-existent in college towns and other smaller cities. Its final box office total would be just over $370k.
March 18th saw the release of a truly unique film.
Imagine a film directed by Robert Altman and Bruce Beresford and Jean-Luc Godard and Derek Jarman and Franc Roddam and Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell and Charles Sturridge and Julien Temple. Imagine a film that starred Beverly D’Angelo, Bridget Fonda in her first movie, Julie Hagerty, Buck Henry, Elizabeth Hurley and John Hurt and Theresa Russell and Tilda Swinton. Imagine a film that brought together ten of the most eclectic filmmakers in the world doing four to fourteen minute short films featuring the arias of some of the most famous and beloved operas ever written, often taken out of their original context and placed into strange new places. Like, for example, the aria for Verdi’s Rigoletto set at the kitschy Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, where a movie producer is cheating on his wife while she is in a nearby room with a hunky man who is not her husband. Imagine that there’s almost no dialogue in the film. Just the arias to set the moments.
That is Aria.
If you are unfamiliar with opera in general, and these arias specifically, that’s not a problem. When I saw the film at the Nickelodeon Theatre in Santa Cruz in June 1988, I knew some Wagner, some Puccini, and some Verdi, through other movies that used the music as punctuation for a scene. I think the first time I had heard Nessun Dorma was in The Killing Fields. Vesti La Giubba in The Untouchables. But this would be the first time I would hear these arias as they were meant to be performed, even if they were out of context within their original stories. Certainly, Wagner didn’t intend the aria from Tristan und Isolde to be used to highlight a suicide pact between a young couple killing themselves in a Las Vegas hotel bathroom.
Aria definitely split critics when it premiered at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, when it competed for the festival’s main prize, the Palme D’Or. Roger Ebert would call it the first MTV opera and felt the filmmakers were poking fun at their own styles, while Leonard Maltin felt most of the endeavor was a waste of time. In the review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin would also make a reference to MTV but not in a positive way, and would note the two best parts of the film were the photo montage that is seen over the end credits, and the clever licensing of Chuck Jones’s classic Bugs Bunny cartoon What’s Opera, Doc, to play with the film, at least during its New York run. In the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper chose one of its music critics to review the film. They too would compare the film to MTV, but also to Fantasia, neither reference meant to be positive.
It’s easy to see what might have attracted Harvey Weinstein to acquire the film.
And lots of it.
Including from a 21 year old Hurley, and a 22 year old Fonda.
Open at the 420 seat Ridgemont Theatre in Seattle on March 18th, 1988, Aria would gross a respectable $10,600. It would be the second highest grossing theatre in the city, only behind The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which grossed $16,600 in its fifth week at the 850 seat Cinerama Theatre, which was and still is the single best theatre in Seattle. It would continue to do well in Seattle, but it would not open until April 15th in Los Angeles and May 20th in New York City.
But despite some decent notices and the presence of some big name directors, Aria would stiff at the box office, grossing just $1.03m after seven months in theatres.
As we discussed on our previous episode, there was a Dennis Hopper movie called Riders on the Storm that supposedly opened in November 1987, but didn’t. It did open in theatres in May of 1988, and now we’re here to talk about it.
Riders on the Storm would open in eleven theatres in the New York City area on May 7th, including three theatres in Manhattan. Since Miramax did not screen the film for critics before release, never a good sign, the first reviews wouldn’t show up until the following day, since the critics would actually have to go see the film with a regular audience. Vincent Canby’s review for the New York Times would arrive first, and surprisingly, he didn’t completely hate the film. But audiences didn’t care. In its first weekend in New York City, Riders on the Storm would gross an anemic $25k. The following Friday, Miramax would open the film at two theatres in Baltimore, four theatres in Fort Worth TX (but surprisingly none in Dallas), one theatre in Los Angeles and one theatre in Springfield OH, while continuing on only one screen in New York. No reported grosses from Fort Worth, LA or Springfield, but the New York theatre reported ticket sales of $3k for the weekend, a 57% drop from its previous week, while the two in Baltimore combined for $5k.
There would be more single playdates for a few months. Tampa the same week as New York. Atlanta, Charlotte, Des Moines and Memphis in late May. Cincinnati in late June. Boston, Calgary, Ottawa and Philadelphia in early July. Greenville SC in late August. Evansville IL, Ithaca NY and San Francisco in early September. Chicago in late September. It just kept popping up in random places for months, always a one week playdate before heading off to the next location. And in all that time, Miramax never reported grosses. What little numbers we do have is from the theatres that Variety was tracking, and those numbers totaled up to less than $30k.
Another mostly lost and forgotten Miramax release from 1988 is Caribe, a Canadian production that shot in Belize about an amateur illegal arms trader to Central American terrorists who must go on the run after a deal goes down bad, because who wants to see a Canadian movie about an amateur illegal arms trader to Canadian terrorists who must go on the run in the Canadian tundra after a deal goes down bad?
Kara Glover would play Helen, the arms dealer, and John Savage as Jeff, a British intelligence agent who helps Helen.
Caribe would first open in Detroit on May 20th, 1988. Can you guess what I’m going to say next?
No reported grosses, no theatres playing the film tracked by Variety.
The following week, Caribe opens in the San Francisco Bay Area, at the 300 seat United Artists Theatre in San Francisco, and three theatres in the South Bay. While Miramax once again did not report grosses, the combined gross for the four theatres, according to Variety, was a weak $3,700. Compare that to Aria, which was playing at the Opera Plaza Cinemas in its third week in San Francisco, in an auditorium 40% smaller than the United Artist, grossing $5,300 on its own.
On June 3rd, Caribe would open at the AMC Fountain Square 14 in Nashville. One show only on Friday and Saturday at 11:45pm. Miramax did not report grosses. Probably because people we going to see Willie Tyler and Lester at Zanie’s down the street.
And again, it kept cycling around the country, one or two new playdates in each city it played in. Philadelphia in mid-June. Indianapolis in mid-July. Jersey City in late August. Always for one week, grosses never reported.
Miramax’s first Swedish release of the year was called Mio, but this was truly an international production. The $4m film was co-produced by Swedish, Norwegian and Russian production companies, directed by a Russian, adapted from a Swedish book by an American screenwriter, scored by one of the members of ABBA, and starring actors from England, Finland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
Mio tells the story of a boy from Stockholm who travels to an otherworldly fantasy realm and frees the land from an evil knight's oppression. What makes this movie memorable today is that Mio’s best friend is played by none other than Christian Bale, in his very first film.
The movie was shot in Moscow, Stockholm, the Crimea, Scotland, and outside Pripyat in the Northern part of what is now Ukraine, between March and July 1986. In fact, the cast and crew were shooting outside Pripyat on April 26th, when they got the call they needed to evacuate the area. It would be hours later when they would discover there had been a reactor core meltdown at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. They would have to scramble to shoot in other locations away from Ukraine for a month, and when they were finally allowed to return, the area they were shooting in deemed to have not been adversely affected by the worst nuclear power plant accident in human history,, Geiger counters would be placed all over the sets, and every meal served by craft services would need to be read to make sure it wasn’t contaminated.
After premiering at the Moscow Film Festival in July 1987 and the Norwegian Film Festival in August, Mio would open in Sweden on October 16th, 1987. The local critics would tear the film apart. They hated that the filmmakers had Anglicized the movie with British actors like Christopher Lee, Susannah York, Christian Bale and Nicholas Pickard, an eleven year old boy also making his film debut. They also hated how the filmmakers adapted the novel by the legendary Astrid Lindgren, whose Pippi Longstocking novels made her and her works world famous. Overall, they hated pretty much everything about it outside of Christopher Lee’s performance and the production’s design in the fantasy world.
Miramax most likely picked it up trying to emulate the success of The Neverending Story, which had opened to great success in most of the world in 1984. So it might seem kinda odd that when they would open the now titled The Land of Faraway in theatres, they wouldn’t go wide but instead open it on one screen in Atlanta GA on June 10th, 1988. And, once again, Miramax did not report grosses, and Variety did not track Atlanta theatres that week. Two weeks later, they would open the film in Miami. How many theatres? Can’t tell you. Miramax did not report grosses, and Variety was not tracking any of the theatres in Miami playing the film. But hey, Bull Durham did pretty good in Miami that week.
The film would next open in theatres in Los Angeles. This time, Miramax bought a quarter page ad in the Los Angeles Times on opening day to let people know the film existed. So we know it was playing on 18 screens that weekend. And, once again, Miramax did not report grosses for the film. But on the two screens it played on that Variety was tracking, the combined gross was just $2,500.
There’d be other playdates. Kansas City and Minneapolis in mid-September. Vancouver, BC in early October. Palm Beach FL in mid October. Calgary AB and Fort Lauderdale in late October. Phoenix in mid November. And never once did Miramax report any grosses for it.
One week after Mio, Miramax would release a comedy called Going Undercover.
Now, if you listened to our March 2021 episode on Some Kind of Wonderful, you may remember be mentioning Lea Thompson taking the role of Amanda Jones in that film, a role she had turned down twice before, the week after Howard the Duck opened, because she was afraid she’d never get cast in a movie again. And while Some Kind of Wonderful wasn’t as big a film as you’d expect from a John Hughes production, Thompson did indeed continue to work, and is still working to this day.
So if you were looking at a newspaper ad in several cities in June 1988 and saw her latest movie and wonder why she went back to making weird little movies.
This was a movie she had made just before Back to the Future, in August and September 1984.
Originally titled Yellow Pages, the film starred film legend Jean Simmons as Maxine, a rich woman who has hired Chris Lemmon’s private investigator Henry Brilliant to protect her stepdaughter Marigold during her trip to Copenhagen.
The director, James Clarke, had written the script specifically for Lemmon, tailoring his role to mimic various roles played by his famous father, Jack Lemmon, over the decades, and for Simmons. But Thompson was just one of a number of young actresses they looked at before making their casting choice.
Half of the $6m budget would come from a first-time British film producer, while the other half from a group of Danish investors wanting to lure more Hollywood productions to their area.
The shoot would be plagued by a number of problems. The shoot in Los Angeles coincided with the final days of the 1984 Summer Olympics, which would cut out using some of the best and most regularly used locations in the city, and a long-lasting heat wave that would make outdoor shoots unbearable for cast and crew. When they arrived in Copenhagen at the end of August, Denmark was going through an unusually heavy storm front that hung around for weeks.
Clarke would spend several months editing the film, longer than usual for a smaller production like this, but he in part was waiting to see how Back to the Future would do at the box office. If the film was a hit, and his leading actress was a major part of that, it could make it easier to sell his film to a distributor.
Or that was line of thinking.
Of course, Back to the Future was a hit, and Thompson received much praise for her comedic work on the film.
But that didn’t make it any easier to sell his film.
The producer would set the first screenings for the film at the February 1986 American Film Market in Santa Monica, which caters not only to foreign distributors looking to acquire American movies for their markets, but helps independent filmmakers get their movies seen by American distributors.
As these screenings were for buyers by invitation only, there would be no reviews from the screenings, but one could guess that no one would hear about the film again until Miramax bought the American distribution rights to it in March 1988 tells us that maybe those screenings didn’t go so well.
The film would get retitled Going Undercover, and would open in single screen playdates in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, St. Louis and Tampa on June 17th. And as I’ve said too many times already, no reported grosses from Miramax, and only one theatre playing the film was being tracked by Variety, with Going Undercover earning $3,000 during its one week at the Century City 14 in Los Angeles.
In the June 22nd, 1988 issue of Variety, there was an article about Miramax securing a $25m line of credit in order to start producing their own films. Going Undercover is mentioned in the article about being one of Miramax’s releases, without noting it had just been released that week or how well it did or did not do.
The Thin Blue Line would be Miramax’s first non-music based documentary, and one that would truly change how documentaries were made.
Errol Morris had already made two bizarre but entertaining documentaries in the late 70s and early 80s. Gates of Heaven was shot in 1977, about a man who operated a failing pet cemetery in Northern California’s Napa Valley. When Morris told his famous German filmmaking supporter Werner Herzog about the film, Herzog vowed to eat one of the shoes he was wearing that day if Morris could actually complete the film and have it shown in a public theatre. In April 1979, just before the documentary had its world premiere at UC Theatre in Berkeley, where Morris had studied philosophy, Herzog would spend the morning at Chez Pannise, the creators of the California Cuisine cooking style, boiling his shoes for five hours in garlic, herbs and stock. This event itself would be commemorated in a documentary short called, naturally, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, by Les Blank, which is a must watch on its own.
Because of the success of Gates of Heaven, Morris was able to quickly find financing for his next film, Nub City, which was originally supposed to be about the number of Vernon, Florida’s citizens who have “accidentally” cut off their limbs, in order to collect the insurance money. But after several of those citizens threatened to kill Morris, and one of them tried to run down his cinematographer with their truck, Morris would rework the documentary, dropping the limb angle, no pun intended, and focus on the numerous eccentric people in the town. It would premiere at the 1981 New York Film Festival, and become a hit, for a documentary, when it was released in theatres in 1982.
But it would take Morris another six years after completing Vernon, Florida, to make another film. Part of it was having trouble lining up full funding to work on his next proposed movie, about James Grigson, a Texas forensic psychiatrist whose was nicknamed Doctor Death for being an expert witness for the prosecution in death penalty cases in Texas. Morris had gotten seed money for the documentary from PBS and the Endowment for Public Arts, but there was little else coming in while he worked on the film. In fact, Morris would get a PI license in New York and work cases for two years, using every penny he earned that wasn’t going towards living expenses to keep the film afloat.
One of Morris’s major problems for the film was that Grigson would not sit on camera for an interview, but would meet with Morris face to face to talk about the cases. During that meeting, the good doctor suggested to the filmmaker that he should research the killers he helped put away. And during that research, Morris would come across the case of one Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted of killing Dallas police officer Robert Wood in 1976, even though another man, David Harris, was the police’s initial suspect. For two years, Morris would fly back and forth between New York City and Texas, talking to and filming interviews with Adams and more than two hundred other people connected to the shooting and the trial. Morris had become convinced Adams was indeed innocent, and dropped the idea about Dr. Grigson to solely focus on the Robert Wood murder.
After showing the producers of PBS’s American Playhouse some of the footage he had put together of the new direction of the film, they kicked in more funds so that Morris could shoot some re-enactment sequences outside New York City, as well as commission composer Phillip Glass to create a score for the film once it was completed. Documentaries at that time did not regularly use re-enactments, but Morris felt it was important to show how different personal accounts of the same moment can be misinterpreted or misremembered or outright manipulated to suppress the truth.
After the film completed its post-production in March 1988, The Thin Blue Line would have its world premiere at the San Francisco Film Festival on March 18th, and word quickly spread Morris had something truly unique and special on his hands. The critic for Variety would note in the very first paragraph of his write up that the film employed “strikingly original formal devices to pull together diverse interviews, film clips, photo collages, and” and this is where it broke ground, “recreations of the crime from many points of view.”
Miramax would put together a full court press in order to get the rights to the film, which was announced during the opening days of the 1988 Cannes Film Festival in early May. An early hint on how the company was going to sell the film was by calling it a “non-fiction feature” instead of a documentary.
Miramax would send Morris out on a cross-country press tour in the weeks leading up to the film’s August 26th opening date, but Morris, like many documentary filmmakers, was not used to being in the spotlight themselves, and was not as articulate about talking up his movies as the more seasoned directors and actors who’ve been on the promotion circuit for a while. After one interview, Harvey Weinstein would send Errol Morris a note.
“Heard your NPR interview and you were boring.”
Harvey would offer up several suggestions to help the filmmaker, including hyping the movie up as a real life mystery thriller rather than a documentary, and using shorter and clearer sentences when answering a question.
It was a clear gamble to release The Thin Blue Line in the final week of summer, and the film would need a lot of good will to stand out.
And it would get it.
The New York Times was so enthralled with the film, it would not only run a review from Janet Maslin, who would heap great praise on the film, but would also run a lengthy interview with Errol Morris right next to the review. The quarter page ad in the New York Times, several pages back, would tout positive quotes from Roger Ebert, J. Hoberman, who had left The Village Voice for the then-new Premiere Magazine, Peter Travers, writing for People Magazine instead of Rolling Stone, and critics from the San Francisco Chronicle and, interestingly enough, the Dallas Morning News. The top of the ad was tagged with an intriguing tease: solving this mystery is going to be murder, with a second tag line underneath the key art and title, which called the film “a new kind of movie mystery.” Of the 15 New York area-based film critics for local newspapers, television and national magazines, 14 of them gave favorable reviews, while 1, Stephen Schiff of Vanity Fair, was ambivalent about it. Not one critic gave it a bad review.
New York audiences were hooked.
Opening in the 240 seat main house at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, the movie grossed $30,945 its first three days. In its second weekend, the gross at the Lincoln Plaza would jump to $31k, and adding another $27,500 from its two theatre opening in Los Angeles and $15,800 from a single DC theatre that week. Third week in New York was a still good $21k, but the second week in Los Angeles fell to $10,500 and DC to $10k. And that’s how it rolled out for several months, mostly single screen bookings in major cities not called Los Angeles or New York City, racking up some of the best reviews Miramax would receive to date, but never breaking out much outside the major cities. When it looked like Santa Cruz wasn’t going to play the film, I drove to San Francisco to see it, just as my friends and I had for the opening day of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in mid-August. That’s 75 miles each way, plus parking in San Francisco, just to see a movie. That’s when you know you no longer just like movies but have developed a serious case of cinephilea. So when The Nickelodeon did open the film in late November, I did something I had never done with any documentary before.
I went and saw it again.
Second time around, I was still pissed off at the outrageous injustice heaped upon Randall Dale Adams for nothing more than being with and trusting the wrong person at the wrong time. But, thankfully, things would turn around for Adams in the coming weeks. On December 1st, it was reported that David Harris had recanted his testimony at Adams’ trial, admitting he was alone when Officer Wood stopped his car. And on March 1st, 1989, after more than 15,000 people had signed the film’s petition to revisit the decision, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Adams’s conviction “based largely” on facts presented in the film.
The film would also find itself in several more controversies.
Despite being named The Best Documentary of the Year by a number of critics groups, the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences would not nominate the film, due in large part to the numerous reenactments presented throughout the film. Filmmaker Michael Apted, a member of the Directors Branch of the Academy, noted that the failure to acknowledge The Thin Blue Line was “one of the most outrageous things in the modern history of the Academy,” while Roger Ebert added the slight was “the worst non-nomination of the year.” Despite the lack of a nomination, Errol Morris would attend the Oscars ceremony in March 1989, as a protest for his film being snubbed.
Morris would also, several months after Adams’ release, find himself being sued by Adams, but not because of how he was portrayed in the film. During the making of the film, Morris had Adams sign a contract giving Morris the exclusive right to tell Adams’s story, and Adams wanted, essentially, the right to tell his own story now that he was a free man. Morris and Adams would settle out of court, and Adams would regain his life rights.
Once the movie was played out in theatres, it had grossed $1.2m, which on the surface sounds like not a whole lot of money. Adjusted for inflation, that would only be $3.08m. But even unadjusted for inflation, it’s still one of the 100 highest grossing documentaries of the past forty years. And it is one of just a handful of documentaries to become a part of the National Film Registry, for being a culturally, historically or aesthetically significant film.”
Adams would live a quiet life after his release, working as an anti-death penalty advocate and marrying the sister of one of the death row inmates he was helping to exonerate. He would pass away from a brain tumor in October 2010 at a courthouse in Ohio not half an hour from where he was born and still lived, but he would so disappear from the spotlight after the movie was released that his passing wasn’t even reported until June 2011.
Errol Morris would become one of the most celebrated documentarians of his generation, finally getting nominated for, and winning, an Oscar in 2003, for The Fog of War, about the life and times of Robert McNamara, Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War era. The Fog of War would also be added to the National Film Registry in 2019. Morris would become only the third documentarian, after D.A. Pennebaker and Les Blank, to have two films on the Registry.
In 1973, the senseless killings of five members of the Alday family in Donalsonville GA made international headlines. Four years later, Canadian documentarian Tex Fuller made an award-winning documentary about the case, called Murder One. For years, Fuller shopped around a screenplay telling the same story, but it would take nearly a decade for it to finally be sold, in part because Fuller was insistent that he also be the director. A small Canadian production company would fund the $1m CAD production, which would star Henry Thomas of E.T. fame as the fifteen year old narrator of the story, Billy Isaacs.
The shoot began in early October 1987 outside Toronto, but after a week of shooting, Fuller was fired, and was replaced by Graeme Campbell, a young and energetic filmmaker for whom Murder One would be his fourth movie directing gig of the year. Details are sketchy as to why Fuller was fired, but Thomas and his mother Carolyn would voice concerns with the producers about the new direction the film was taking under its new director.
The film would premiere in Canada in May 1988. When the film did well up North, Miramax took notice and purchased the American distribution rights.
Murder One would first open in America on two screens in Los Angeles on September 9th, 1988. Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times noted that while the film itself wasn’t very good, that it still sprung from the disturbing insight about the crazy reasons people cross of what should be impassable moral lines.
“No movie studio could have invented it!,” screamed the tagline on the poster and newspaper key art. “No writer could have imagined it! Because what happened that night became the most controversial in American history.”
That would draw limited interest from filmgoers in Tinseltown. The two theatres would gross a combined $7k in its first three days. Not great but far better than several other recent Miramax releases in the area.
Two weeks later, on September 23rd, Miramax would book Murder One into 20 theatres in the New York City metro region, as well as in Akron, Atlanta, Charlotte, Indianpolis, Nashville, and Tampa-St. Petersburg. In New York, the film would actually get some good reviews from the Times and the Post as well as Peter Travers of People Magazine, but once again, Miramax would not report grosses for the film. Variety would note the combined gross for the film in New York City was only $25k.
In early October, the film would fall out of Variety’s internal list of the 50 Top Grossing Films within the twenty markets they regularly tracked, with a final gross of just $87k. One market that Miramax deliberately did not book the film was anywhere near southwest Georgia, where the murders took place. The closest theatre that did play the film was more than 200 miles away.
Miramax would finish 1988 with two releases.
The first was Dakota, which would mark star Lou Diamond Phillips first time as a producer. He would star as a troubled teenager who takes a job on a Texas horse ranch to help pay of his debts, who becomes a sorta big brother to the ranch owner’s young son, who has recently lost a leg to cancer, as he also falls for the rancher’s daughter.
When the $1.1m budgeted film began production in Texas in June 1987, Phillips had already made La Bamba and Stand and Deliver, but neither had yet to be released into theatres. By the time filming ended five weeks later, La Bamba had just opened, and Phillips was on his way to becoming a star.
The main producers wanted director Fred Holmes to get the film through post-production as quickly as possible, to get it into theatres in the early part of 1988 to capitalize on the newfound success of their young star.
But that wouldn’t happen.
Holmes wouldn’t have the film ready until the end of February 1988, which was deemed acceptable because of the impending release of Stand and Deliver. In fact, the producers would schedule their first distributor screening of the film on March 14th, the Monday after Stand and Delivered opened, in the hopes that good box office for the film and good notices for Phillips would translate to higher distributor interest in their film, which sorta worked. None of the major studios would show for the screening, but a number of Indies would, including Miramax. Phillips would not attend the screening, as he was on location in New Mexico shooting Young Guns.
I can’t find any reason why Miramax waited nearly nine months after they acquired Dakota to get it into theatres. It certainly wasn’t Oscar bait, and screen availability would be scarce during the busy holiday movie season, which would see a number of popular, high profile releases like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Ernest Saves Christmas, The Naked Gun, Rain Man, Scrooged, Tequila Sunrise, Twins and Working Girl. Which might explain why, when Miramax released the film into 18 theatres in the New York City area on December 2nd, they could only get three screens in all of Manhattan, the best being the nice but hardly first-rate Embassy 4 at Broadway and 47th. Or of the 22 screens in Los Angeles opening the film the same day, the best would be the tiny Westwood 4 next to UCLA or the Paramount in Hollywood, whose best days were back in the Eisenhower administration.
And, yet again, Miramax did not report grosses, and none of the theatres playing the film was tracked by Variety that week. The film would be gone after just one week. The Paramount, which would open Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on the 14th, opted to instead play a double feature of Clara’s Heart, with Whoopi Goldberg and Neil Patrick Harris, and the River Phoenix drama Running on Empty, even though neither film had been much of a hit.
Miramax’s last film of the year would be the one that changed everything for them.
Pelle the Conquerer.
Adapted from a 1910 Danish book and directed by Billie August, whose previous film Twist and Shout had been released by Miramax in 1986, Pelle the Conquerer would be the first Danish or Swedish movie to star Max von Sydow in almost 15 years, having spent most of the 70s and 80s in Hollywood and London starring in a number of major movies including The Exorcist, Three Days of the Condor, Flash Gordon,Conan the Barbarian, Never Say Never Again, and David Lynch’s Dune. But because von Sydow would be making his return to his native cinema, August was able to secure $4.5m to make the film, one of the highest budgeted Scandinavian films to be made to date.
In the late 1850s, an elderly emigrant Lasse and his son Pelle leave their home in Sweden after the death of the boy’s mother, wanting to build a new life on the Danish island of Bornholm. Lasse finds it difficult to find work, given his age and his son's youth. The pair are forced to work at a large farm, where they are generally mistreated by the managers for being foreigners. The father falls into depression and alcoholism, the young boy befriends one of the bastard children of the farm owner as well as another Swedish farm worker, who dreams of conquering the world.
For the title character of Pelle, Billie August saw more than 3,000 Swedish boys before deciding to cast 11 year old Pelle Hvenegaard, who, like many boys in Sweden, had been named for the character he was now going to play on screen.
After six months of filming in the summer and fall of 1986, Billie August would finish editing Pelle the Conquerer in time for it to make its intended Christmas Day 1987 release date in Denmark and Sweden, where the film would be one of the biggest releases in either country for the entire decade. It would make its debut outside Scandinavia at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1988, where it had been invited to compete for the Palme D’Or. It would compete against a number of talented filmmakers who had come with some of the best films they would ever make, including Clint Eastwood with Bird, Claire Denis’ Chocolat, István Szabó’s Hanussen, Vincent Ward’s The Navigator, and A Short Film About Killing, an expanded movie version of the fifth episode in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s masterful miniseries Dekalog. Pelle would conquer them all, taking home the top prize from one of cinema’s most revered film festivals.
Reviews for the film out of Cannes were almost universally excellent. Vincent Canby, the lead film critic for the New York Times for nearly twenty years by this point, wouldn’t file his review until the end of the festival, in which he pointed out that a number of people at the festival were scandalized von Sydow had not also won the award for Best Actor.
Having previously worked with the company on his previous film’s American release, August felt that Miramax would have what it took to make the film a success in the States.
Their first moves would be to schedule the film for a late December release, while securing a slot at that September’s New York Film Festival. And once again, the critical consensus was highly positive, with only a small sampling of distractors.
The film would open first on two screens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in midtown Manhattan on Wednesday, December 21st, following by exclusive engagements in nine other cities including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC, on the 23rd. But the opening week numbers weren’t very good, just $46k from ten screens. And you can’t really blame the film’s two hour and forty-five minute running time. Little Dorrit, the two-part, four hour adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, had been out nine weeks at this point and was still making nearly 50% more per screen.
But after the new year, when more and more awards were hurled the film’s way, including the National Board of Review naming it one of the best foreign films of the year and the Golden Globes awarding it their Best Foreign Language trophy, ticket sales would pick up.
Well, for a foreign film.
The week after the Motion Picture Academy awarded Pelle their award for Best Foreign Language Film, business for the film would pick up 35%, and a third of its $2m American gross would come after that win.
One of the things that surprised me while doing the research for this episode was learning that Max von Sydow had never been nominated for an Oscar until he was nominated for Best Actor for Pelle the Conquerer. You look at his credits over the years, and it’s just mind blowing. The Seventh Seal. Wild Strawberries. The Virgin Spring. The Greatest Story Ever Told. The Emigrants. The Exorcist. The Three Days of the Condor. Surely there was one performance amongst those that deserved recognition.
I hate to keep going back to A24, but there’s something about a company’s first Oscar win that sends that company into the next level. A24 didn’t really become A24 until 2016, when three of their movies won Oscars, including Brie Larson for Best Actress in Room. And Miramax didn’t really become the Miramax we knew and once loved until its win for Pelle.
Thank you for joining us. We’ll talk again soon, when Episode 117, the fifth and final part of our miniseries on Miramax Films, is released.
Remember to visit this episode’s page on our website, The80sMoviePodcast.com, for extra materials about the movies we covered this episode.
The 80s Movies Podcast has been researched, written, narrated and edited by Edward Havens for Idiosyncratic Entertainment.
Thank you again.