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Time Warner, feeling political heat, re-releases family film

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When a company is the target of a blistering, high-profile political speech, it tends to get a little defensive. And Time Warner has a lot to defend since Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole attacked its values in May, saying it was "on the leading edge of coarseness and violence."

Today, Time Warner presents evidence to the contrary by giving the wholesome, magical "A Little Princess," one of the year's best-reviewed films and one of the most disappointing at the box office, a rare re-release.

There's more than image involved in Warner's move, of course -- "Princess" has yet to make money. Its rebirth raises the question: Is there no longer a viable market for family films like this, or was "Princess" simply not marketed well in the first place?

The film's producer, Mark Johnson of Baltimore Pictures, says that whatever reason is cited for its re-release, he's grateful. "I'll take any help we can get," he says, adding, "I think it comes down more to the marketplace than ideology."

Warner, which is releasing "A Little Princess" on video in just six weeks, seems to be placing the future of family films in the audience's hands.

"We know that it is unusual for us to approach you this way," says Warner Bros. President Robert G. Friedman in a letter to journalists about the film's re-release, "but the future of quality family films like this one depends upon your support. The movie business is a commercial enterprise; if films like 'A Little Princess' continue to fail at the box office, Hollywood will stop making them."

Based on the tale by Frances Hodgson Burnett, "A Little Princess" is the story of a girl who is left at a strict boarding school in New York when her father is called away to serve in World War I. She wins friends by telling magical stories inspired by her pampered childhood in India, but when it appears that her father has been killed, she is left penniless and must discover the magic within herself, to learn that no matter how rich or poor she may be, every girl is a princess.

"I'm as proud of it as anything I've done, and up to the actual release of the movie, it's been a magical experience . . . the actual making of it was a delight," says Johnson, who is from Chevy Chase and has often worked with Baltimore filmmaker Barry Levinson. "I've never had a movie reviewed as well as this, and that includes 'Rain Man' and 'Good Morning, Vietnam' and 'Bugsy' and all of them."

Somehow, though, even the great reviews didn't pull in people. Johnson blames Warner's marketing and suggests that the girlish title and poster also may have turned off potential audiences. While "A Little Princess" cost about $17 million to make, he says, it has earned only about $9 million.

Compare that with "Casper," which was made for about $50 million and received mediocre reviews. It has raked in more than $90 million at the box office. "The Secret Garden," another lovely film based on a Burnett story, did $33 million, according to Johnson.

"I think quite frankly Warner Brothers knows that the director and I were extremely disappointed, and I was actually very angry," he says. " . . . I went along with the decisions and relied on people whose job it was to make the decisions to sell this movie."

Dole's speech focused on the selling of a different kind of movie when he asked Time Warner executives: "Is this what you intended to accomplish with your careers? Must you debase our nation and threaten our children for the sake of corporate profits?"

Considering the success of the movie industry's rampant sex-and-slasher flicks, it's no wonder the senator's comments sent tremors through Hollywood. "I think it's got a lot of people scared," Johnson says. "They want to think twice about it."

But the producer, who says he doesn't want to join the political debate, also sees the irony in Dole's speech -- the GOP senator, after all, called the violent, Arab-bashing, kinky "True Lies," starring prominent Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, a family movie.

Johnson says filmmakers bear responsibility for what goes on the screen. "It's such an easy cop-out to say we're giving the public what they want," he says. " . . . I think it's up to us."

He still sees a potential audience for "Princess."

"I would like to think there's a very solid marketplace for family values movies," he says. "It's not just a question of whatever you can sell or merchandise the most."

But skilled merchandising certainly helps. Anyone who hasn't noticed the push for Disney's "Pocahontas," for instance, has probably been living in a cave; it has sold $125 million in tickets so far. Disney's campaigns for its animated juggernauts show that well-marketed family movies can make millions, and Johnson recognizes that.

"This movie was developed seven years ago by Disney," Johnson says ruefully of "A Little Princess." "It certainly would have helped to have 'Walt Disney Presents' over the title."

Would he work on another film like this one, knowing that there's a chance it wouldn't make money? "If you'd asked me five weeks ago, I would have said no," Johnson says, adding, "But I guess I would [work on another one]. I would think very carefully about who was going to sell the movie."

After seeing it dozens of times, he's still enthusiastic about "Princess," and he should be. "I think there's wealth to the movie," he says -- wealth in the details, such as the predominantly green designs used throughout the film. "I think it gives it a real richness, but it doesn't distract."

A great deal of the film's enchantment can be attributed to little-known director Alfonso Cuaron, who had never done an American feature film before. "He walked into the room for the interview, and he had long hair and [was] unshaven," says Johnson, who was skeptical of him at first. "But in about 20 minutes he was able to convince me that this script was important to him and we saw the movie the same way. That said, I must also say we got very lucky."

The failure of "Princess" becomes even more difficult to swallow when one takes into account the fine cast, clever screenwriters Richard LaGravenese ("The Fisher King," "The Bridges of Madison County") and Elizabeth Chandler, and brilliant soundtrack composer Patrick Doyle ("Henry V").

"This is one of the best movies of the year . . . and they did it wrong," Johnson says of Warner's marketing.

But despite his frustration, he says, "at the end of the day what I have is a movie that I'm so proud of and that's going to be around for a long, long time."

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