|CURRENT ISSUE APRIL 21, 2003|
CINEMA: BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE
A black heroine, a white hero. Their comedy that grossed over $100 million is a personal best for producer Amritraj.
|By Anil Padmanabhan|
The Spago restaurant at Sunset Boulevard is where the stars of that rarefied space called silver screen like to hang out and be seen. Famous for its "California Cuisine" and designer pizzas and pasta, it is an integral part of Hollywood's glitzy life. When Ashok Amritraj pulled up his chair for dinner on March 7, his thoughts were on the mini-celebration of the latest movie from his stable, Bringing Down the House.
Before coming to the restaurant, he had just got word from his marketing team that the movie was on its way to be the No. 1 opener that weekend. It had been a big relief. After having seen a relentless ad campaign from the competitor, the Bruce Willis-starrer Tears in the Sun, Amritraj was expecting the worst. However, Bringing Down the House-co-produced by Hyde Park, the Amritraj venture, and Disney Films-literally brought the house down with its comedy on an odd couple.
Just after Amritraj ordered pasta for his wife and pizza with special chilli sauce for himself, his cell phone rang. The exit polls at the cinemas were giving better results than expected and the late-night shows as well as Saturday night might pack a pleasant surprise with house-full screenings. All of a sudden, the Francis Coppola red wine tasted better than ever before. "It is a weekend I will like to relive. I was very tense at that point in the restaurant. Whenever I turned on the television, all I would see were commercials of Tears in the Sun. I was getting paranoid," says Amritraj.
He need not have worried. Bringing Down the House, released in 2,801 theatres, returned an opening weekend collection of $31.1 million, leaving the Willis-starrer a poor second at $17.1 million. In Bringing Down..., Steve Martin plays an uptight attorney who gets to meet an ex-con, played by Queen Latifah, through a blind date. The comedy, starring a white male lead and an African-American as female co-lead, turned out much better than what the film industry had expected.
The film appealed to many ethnic groups. According to boxofficeguru.com, 53 per cent of the audience were women and 55 per cent were over 25 years. The responses were extremely positive, an incredible 98 per cent who viewed the film rated it "excellent" or "very good"-clear indications that the weekend performance was not a flash in the pan. In March, Bringing Down the House generated the fourth largest opening ever following Ice Age ($46.3 million), Blade II ($32.5 million) and Liar Liar ($31.4 million).
The movie that touched the $100 million mark last week-after having been on the top of the charts for a record three weeks in a row-had crossed $115 million on the last count. The final collections of Bringing Down the House are expected to aggregate $140 million. An amazing run for a movie, which cost $35 million to make and another $30 million to market. The producers are now wondering how the movie will perform worldwide after the fantastic run in North America. It may well be that the movie's appeal is to the peculiar demography of the United States and may not curry the same influence elsewhere.
Industry watchers feel that the movie's appeal is the odd-couple theme. "It cuts across racial lines. And, it is a comedy that makes good watching," says Gitesh Pandya of boxofficeguru.com.
Amritraj believes that the timing of the film's release was favourable, at least where the box-office earnings are concerned. With the United States engaged in the Iraq war and wary of potential terrorist strikes, a two-hour entertainment is just what the doctor prescribed for anxious citizens. "I think it (box-office collections) had a lot to do from a timing standpoint. The reaction was just the opposite when I opened Bandit a year-and-a-half-ago," says Amritraj. "Though we opened at No. 2 at the box office we lost a bunch of money because it was right after 9/11. And once you booked theatres and spent $30-35 million in advertising, you could not move the date. Sometimes these things work for you and sometimes against."
He may have a point. Bringing Down the House is just the latest in a series of hit comedies that have attracted huge audiences this year. Box-office collections for Just Married, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Shanghai Knights, Old School and Bringing Down the House are poised to cross $400 million. However, another comedy, The Guru, starring a male lead of Indian origin, Jimi Mistry, and an American actress, Heather Graham, in the female lead did not fare so well in North America though it did well in the UK and India.
Tracy Jackson, scriptwriter of The Guru, believes there are several reasons why Bringing Down ... scored and The Guru failed. "Both are inter-racial comedies but Bringing Down the House is a more mainstream movie with big stars, which always give it a leg-up," she says. "It is very hard for big studios to market niche movies like The Guru. Even the posters for Bringing Down the House look provocative but do not venture into dangerous territory. Parts of America are not comfortable with inter-racial love stories."
The difference between the two movies is that The Guru-despite being a niche movie-took a chance and ended with the hero and heroine riding off into the sunset. In contrast, Bringing Down the House deals with secondary inter-racial relations. "The best comedy is offensive. In The Guru we poked fun at everybody. And, somebody would be offended," adds Jackson.
For Amritraj, Bringing Down ... is also a personal best. And all the more special because its success comes as he completes exactly two decades in Hollywood. It has been a long journey for him-from Chennai to the global tennis circuit where he played along with his elder brothers, Vijay and Anand, and then eventually to Los Angeles. "There are not many people who can say they played at the Wimbledon and the US Open and have also made movies in Hollywood," says Amritraj.
His attraction to Hollywood was inevitable, it was something he always wanted to be part of. "As I went along in my tennis career I made it a point to get to know a lot of people in town," says Amritraj. And, it helped him switch to big screens from centre courts. "I was able to talk it through with friends like Sidney Poitier and Charleton Heston. They were big tennis fans who would come to watch a lot of games," he adds.
Finally, after talking to his family, and taking advice from big brother Vijay, he took the plunge into movie making. The first five years he knocked on many doors but did not get a movie made. While his tennis reputation and contacts opened studio doors for him, it failed to translate into anything on the screen. "Hollywood makes you pay your dues. No matter where you come from, whatever you are great in, whether you are a star in another field or another country, in Hollywood you start from square one," says Amritraj. "It takes tremendous focus, discipline and perseverance to climb up the ranks. It is very rare that you just walk in and the lights shine on you. What to you may seem like an overnight success has taken me 20 years to achieve."
But as he sat at the Spago with wine in hand, those years faded away and the winking bubbles would remind him only of the house lights. A heady feel of success remained.