The dream factory: Make-or-break weekend

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It's a tough world out there. Barely had the leftover turkey from last weekend's Thanksgiving holiday been wrapped in aluminium and stashed into the nether reaches of the fridge when the knives came out in Hollywood.

The much-awaited sequel to Babe got off to a slow start over the four- day holiday and - bam! - the head of production at Universal Studios, Casey Silver, found himself tossed out of a job.

Meanwhile, the distributors started getting impatient with the same studio's syrupy melodrama Meet Joe Black. It wasn't that it was doing badly - $36m in two weeks are not to be sniffed at, especially after some of the worst reviews of the year - but the feeling was that it wasn't doing nearly well enough. The industry press wrote it off, and it was duly yanked from hundreds of screens.

Thanksgiving is the hottest movie weekend of the year, an occasion for all Hollywood's most venal instincts to come to the fore. Like a pack of greyhounds scratching and yelping in their starter cages at the racetrack, the big studios vie with each other for the grand prize, the Holiday Blockbuster, which alone will justify all the excesses and idiocies of the previous year.

Success and failure are not measured by the strength of reviews, or early audience reaction. There is no long-term, or even medium-term, marketing strategy. Everything rides on the opening weekend. If a film kicks off strongly, the floodgates will open and in no time it will appear everywhere - pretty much guaranteeing its success no matter what audiences might think of it.

If a film opens disappointingly, then the "loser" tag it acquires quickly turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Distributors stop showing it; the hype machine goes deathly quiet overnight, and any chance the film might have had to build its audience is utterly sabotaged.

The approach is unsubtle, to say the least, and has grown more unsubtle as the Hollywood studios have been taken over by big conglomerates. Casey Silver's dismissal from Universal was the latest in a slew of firings since the company was bought out by the Canadian drinks company Seagram three years ago.

Artistically, Silver's record had been pretty decent. This year he was responsible for, among other things, Primary Colors, the movie of the roman a clef about the rise of Bill Clinton, Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh's adaptation of Elmore Leonard, and One True Thing, an intensely acted mother- daughter drama starring Meryl Streep and directed by Carl Franklin.

The problem with these movies is that their qualities are not big box- office qualities. Primary Colors was upstaged by the Lewinsky scandal, which made it look tame and dated, and the other two were too thoughtful, too understated, to appeal to the suburban masses. Although they were generally well received, they didn't stand a chance in the great opening weekend sweepstakes.

The Babe sequel, Pig in the City, suffered from a similar too-clever- for-its-own-good problem. Although the critics liked it, they noted it was several notches darker than its predecessor - a farmyard caper bordering on urban nightmare. More protective families opted for one of the less demanding children's movies on offer, and it finished number five in last week's box-office charts rather than the hotly anticipated number one. Bye bye, Casey Silver.

To anyone remotely interested in art, or integrity, or diversity in the movies, this is an ugly way of running the business. A film such as Beloved, Jonathan Demme's demanding adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel, doesn't stand a chance when it is expected to draw the same opening crowd as Armageddon or Titanic. It, too, was yanked from cinemas before it had a chance to build up an audience, a victim of over-exposure and inappropriate sledgehammer marketing.

There is a certain comic satisfaction in seeing the major studios lining up each year behind the films they think will blow the multiplexes away, only to see them reel in surprise as an entirely different clutch of films runs away with the box-office booty. Who could have predicted the fortunes of Rush Hour, or The Waterboy, or The Rugrats Movie? (If you haven't heard of them, don't worry. You soon will.)

If the studios are constantly caught off guard, it is partly because of their adolescent obsession with being number one. Nothing less will do. Most glaring case in point: Antz, the DreamWorks animated insect movie, which was considered a raging success in its first month as it netted a cool $85m. But then Disney's very similar A Bug's Life came out over Thanksgiving and made more than half that amount in just five days.

All of a sudden, Antz is being talked of in the same tones as leprosy and death duties. It's well on its way to being that only-in-Hollywood phenomenon, a $100m failure.