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Hollywood hype tends to drown out word-of-mouth these days

Posted April 5

Back in 1992, a little British film called “Enchanted April” sneaked into town on the last Friday in August. As the Deseret News movie critic at the time, I was catching up on movies that opened while I had been on vacation, and this one caught me by surprise.

“Enchanted April” was a last-minute addition, scheduled to fill an empty screen in a downtown six-auditorium multiplex. As a result, it was not shown in advance to local critics.

It was the rare movie in those days that opened without an early screening. Studios and theaters always wanted reviews in the local papers on opening day.

Well, almost always. If something came into town without such a screening, it was usually a sign that the film was a real stinker.

What’s more, it was the end of August, a time that was notorious as the annual dumping ground for lousy movies, as theaters were still overflowing with summer blockbusters and the more serious fall flicks were a couple of weeks away.

But my thinking was that “Enchanted April” had to be an exception to that rule, since it was arriving on the heels of excellent reviews from New York and Los Angeles, where it had been playing for a month.

I dutifully went to the first Friday matinee so I could get a review in the newspaper over the weekend — and the film proved to be an absolute delight.

But I didn’t have much hope for its box-office success since it opened way under the radar, and on the same day as “Honeymoon in Vegas,” and would be competing with that summer’s biggest hits: “Batman Returns,” “Sister Act,” “A League of Their Own” and “Unforgiven,” among others.

“Enchanted April” was also going up against another British film that was similar in tone, and which targeted the same audience, “Howards End.”

But an interesting thing began to happen. Instead of the usual business model — which was that however big an audience might be for the first or second weekend, it would drop off dramatically thereafter — “Enchanted April” opened with few in attendance but the audience began to grow larger week to week.

In the era of the home-video boom and five, six or more movies opening every week, this was pretty much unheard of. And it had nothing to do with reviews or advertising or the usual Hollywood hype. It had everything to do with audience word-of-mouth.

Those who saw the film were telling friends and relatives how wonderful it was, and urging them to see it before it disappeared. And the audience grew exponentially for several weeks. The theater, which planned to use “Enchanted April” merely as filler for one week, unexpectedly had a local hit on its hands.

Oh, and another anomaly: That growing audience was mostly women!

In the 21st century, this kind of thing is difficult to imagine since movies today have no time to build on word-of-mouth. If a film doesn’t do well that first weekend, it’ll be gone by the end of the first or second week.

Now, I told you that to tell you this: Last week I was asked by an unusual number of people about new movies playing in town. And they all seemed quite surprised when I confessed that I hadn’t yet seen spring’s biggest blockbuster, “Beauty and the Beast,” and instead sang the praises of “A United Kingdom” and “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”

Say what?

No one I spoke to had heard of either film.

I understand that. Both are serious true stories. Neither has a superhero. They aren’t cartoons. And there isn’t a raunchy joke anywhere in sight. As a result no one went out of his way to publicize them.

Do they even still make movies like this?

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are exceptional in “A United Kingdom,” set in post-World War II England and Bechuanaland, which would eventually become Botswana. Oyelowo plays the heir to the Bechuanaland throne and Pike is the British commoner he woos and marries. But in this era of apartheid, his people reject him as king, outraged that he has married a white woman, so he struggles to win them over, even as the British government attempts to block his every move.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife,” which begins in 1939, is about a husband and wife with a young son who are running the Warsaw Zoo when Poland comes under attack and is later occupied by Nazi Germany. They struggle to save their animals, then upon realizing what is happening to their Jewish friends and neighbors, work with the resistance and use the zoo as a rescue way station. Jessica Chastain anchors the film with a powerful performance in the title role.

To compare, after three weeks “Beauty and the Beast” is still playing in 25 theaters just in the Salt Lake Valley, while after five weeks “A United Kingdom” is in just two and “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” which opened last week, is in five.

My advice? Check them out before they get away.

Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at hicks@deseretnews.com.

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