Monday, January 19, 2015

Newsploitation: Small Seismic Shifts at the Box Office

Another day, another anniversary.  Today’s box office birthday is special one in that it is one of my favorite horror/sci-fi movies of the 1990s, a great example of how to pay homage without being condescending.  It is also an illustration of the power of audiences in the post-theatrical world (meaning video and cable) back in the 1990s. Yes, there is a whole lotta shakin’ going on today as the giant worm masterpiece TREMORS turns 25-years-old.  When TREMORS came out in January 1990, it was a modest success at the box office.  Its gross was nothing that would blow studio execs away, but enough to keep the Universal brass on Spago’s reservation list for another few minutes.  It is in the film’s video afterlife that it really caught on with audiences and, thanks to the efforts of its core creative crew, has become a veritable one-movie industry.

TREMORS was scripted by the writing team of Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson in the mid-80s and came from a ominous thought Wilson once had while working out in the desert and wondering what would happen if something was lurking under the sand.  I first started noticing this screenwriting duo’s names back in the mid-80s on fun sci-fi comedies like SHORT CIRCUIT (1986) and BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED (1987).  So when I read in Fangoria they were going to be working on a sci-fi/horror film, it was promising news.  The script made its way around town and eventually fell into producer Gale Anne Hurd’s hands and she raised the money to have it made under her No Frills Film Production banner.  Lined up for the director’s chair was Ron Underwood, who had previous to this done after school specials.  Friends with Underwood since meeting at USC in the 1970s, Maddock and Wilson has co-written several shorts/educational films for the director, who would be making his theatrical feature film directing debut.  Telling the tale of a small desert town fighting off killer sandworms, the film began principal photography in April 1989 in California.  In Variety on August 3, 1989 it was announced that Universal Studios had picked up the worldwide distribution rights with an early 1990 release date planned.

TREMORS came out on January 19, 1990 in the U.S. and was the only wide new release that weekend.  It got fairly good reviews (even critical saint/blowhard Roger Ebert sanctimoniously lowered himself enough to say he “liked it enough to recommend it, just barely.”). The film opened in 5th place with a haul of $3,731,520.  Now here is where things get interesting.  The following weekend, the film only dropped 18% in its take.  Now if you know anything about horror and sci-fi films that is pretty amazing.  Usually genre films typically tend to drop 50% or more their second weekend.  So TREMORS managed to keep folks coming back.  For me personally, I saw it in a military theater in Germany twice on back-to-back days a few months later.  Yes, I enjoyed the damn movie so much that I went back to see it the night of its second screening.  In total, the film ended up grossing $16,667,084 at the U.S. box office.  According to the IMDb, worldwide it made $48.5 million.  Not bad for a “tiny” film with a budget of around $11 million, but still behind Universal’s other horror films that year – William Friedkin’s THE GUARDIAN, Sam Raimi’s DARKMAN, and CHILD’S PLAY 2.

Following the film’s theatrical release is where the film really took off though.  It became a great success of video and cable, with the offbeat characters and comedy capturing audiences. Underwood went on to have even greater success the next year with CITY SLICKERS (1991), which ended up being the highest grossing comedy of that year.  The Maddock/Wilson/Underwood trio sooner partnered with producer (and their former agent) Nancy Roberts to form Stampede Entertainment and in March 1992 received a first look deal with Universal studios.  The first project born from this was the fantasy comedy HEART AND SOULS (1993), which fared so-so when released in theaters in August 1993.  However, just like TREMORS, the film had an afterlife on video.

The idea of returning to Perfection always stuck with the group and in the mid-90s they convinced Universal to fund a sequel at a fraction of the cost of the first film. The team reunited on TREMORS II: AFTERSHOCKS (1996) with Maddock and Wilson again co-writing and Wilson in the director’s chair. The follow up went straight-to-video and was successful enough to bring the team back together for a third film.  TREMORS 3: BACK TO PERFECTION (2001) arrived a few years later with the same writing team and this time Maddock making his directorial debut.  The little killer worm film that could was now a franchise and in July 2002 the Sci-Fi Channel announced they were picking up TREMORS: THE SERIES (2003).  The series ran for 13 episodes and also led to TREMORS 4: THE LEGEND BEGINS (2004), which saw Wilson back in the director’s chair.  Whew!  Like a voracious sandworm, Universal couldn’t get enough. Not a bad legacy for a film that only did okay at the box office twenty five years ago and a pretty happy ending for those involved.  Of course, we also have to have the Hollywood ending as last year Universal started production on TREMORS 5 in South Africa.  Amazingly, they let Maddock and Wilson walk on the project when they wouldn’t allow the series creators creative control.  Ah, Hollywood, never change.

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