Say, What Happened to "Say Anything"?
One of the spring's brightest films was only a modest success in theaters; "I hope it has a life in video," says filmmaker Cameron Crowe.
When is a teen movie not just another teen movie? When it's got real heart, and something to say to moviegoers of all ages. Such was definitely the case with one of the little-seen gems of 1989, Say Anything, a romantic comedy with enough charm and style to cross over to hit status with the broad general audience that had also warmly embraced other not-just-for-teens fare like Risky Business and The Graduate. The movie's credits hinted at something more serious than the usual boy-meets-girl shenanigans.
Making his directorial debut, screenwriter Cameron Crowe brought with him established credentials as a veritable anthropologist of adolescence, earned researching and writing Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even more significant was the imprimatur of James L. Brooks, director of Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News, who served as the film's executive producer and guardian of its higher aspirations. Though it didn't have name players, Say Anything starred the enormously appealing John (_The Sure Thing_) Cusack as an earnest high school kick-boxer who sets his sights on the smartest girl in class, played by Ione (_River's Edge_) Skye. Critics praised Say Anything with encouraging words, though Daily Variety, in its review, warned that while "pic could have sleeper potential, [it] will likely generate no more than decent box-office."
That, in fact, turned out to be the case. In its first weekend of release, placing third behind Major League and The Dream Team, Say Anything picked up a respectable, though hardly blockbuster, $4 million. The movie might have picked up speed with favorable word-of-mouth, but in its second weekend it was mowed down by one of the surprise hits of the spring, Pet Sematary. By the time it was forced to vacate theaters to make way for the onslaught of summer releases, it had grossed approximately $18 million, a decent figure for any other run-of-the-mill teen movie but something of a disappointment given the warmth of its critical reception.
"We tried to deal directly with the audience that we thought would love the picture the best-which was the teens. When we started getting the reviews, we realized that the audiences might be broader and we tried to use those reviews to turn on a bit of an older audience," explains Thomas Sherak, Fox's head of distribution and marketing. "What's interesting about Say Anything, it started to appeal to a lot of different types of people-even people we weren't going after. A lot of people liked it so much, they felt it should have done better. But what we tried to do from the very beginning was be true to the picture. We tried to make it not a cheap teen picture-we tried to make it a thinking person's teen picture."
Some feel the studio's early impressionistic teaser trailer-a series of warm and off-beat moments separated by title cards with the legends "Say Something Romantic," "Say Something Funny," "Say Anything"-perfectly captured the film's considerable charm. However, the later main trailer instead attempted to tell the story chronologically in some depth, because, says Sherak, "if you don't tell the story, you're going to have a problem."
Crowe pitched in with a ten-city, two-week press tour, although not all the promotional activities paid off. "The lead single, Nancy Wilson's 'All for Love', never took off like we thought it would. It didn't get as much play on MTV as we would have liked," says Crowe (who is married to Wilson). And a 900-call-in number, arranged through Westwood One, the radio syndicator, went bust when first Cusack, and then Skye, refused to lend themselves to the gimmick. Crowe and radio personality Shadoe Stevens pinch hit, but, laughs Crowe, "We didn't have any star power going for us."
In retrospect, however, the key element affecting the movie's fate was Fox's decision to launch it as a broad release in April in hopes of taking advantage of what appeared at the time as relatively open territory in the marketplace. As it turned out, the spring season proved to be fairly competitive, with Pet Sematary, Major League, The Dream Team and K-9 all competing for a slice of the same pie, not to mention the ongoing success of Field of Dreams. "After Pet Sematary came out, I don't think anybody under the age of 40 came up to me and said, 'I saw the movie and really liked it,' " adds Crowe. "It just seems after Pet Sematary, it was all older people."
The distributor began cutting back on advertising after Say Anything's second weekend, and grosses dropped accordingly.
"I was happy to get out there before the big [summer] crunch," Crowe nevertheless attests. "In hindsight, you think, gee, what if it had been platformed? People would come up to me and say, 'What about Dead Poets Society? Pretty nice release pattern. What if they had done that for Say Anything?' But no one pulled a fast one on us. The movie was ready, and I was happy to get it out there. It was all a very pleasant surprise after the way Fast Times was handled. That was cut down to a regional release at the last minute and never achieved the kind of success that people assumed it did. Say Anything did better than Fast Times in regular release, so it was a big step for me. I hope it has a life in video."
Gregg Kilday is a Los Angeles-based writer who reports on the movie industry.