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GUMP HAPPENS--AND VIACOM IS THANKING ITS LUCKY STARS
Life is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you're gonna get.
Not even the most avid Gump follower would have predicted a month ago that Forrest Gump would become one of the biggest blockbusters of any movie season. Certainly not the nation's candymakers, none of which signed up for a product tie-in. Probably not even Sumner M. Redstone, the 71-year-old Viacom Inc. chairman who admits he privately thought the film's innocuous title would make it a tough sell to America's moviegoers.
Now, like Tom Hanks's Gump, the 75-IQ simpleton who succeeds with an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, Redstone can only thank the gods of fate. Just months after closing a hard-fought $10 billion battle for Paramount Communications Inc.--and saddling his company with nearly $9 billion in debt--Gump could generate cash flow of at least $100 million annually this year and next (table).
Indeed, Gump's runaway success may validate, for now, Redstone's expensive decision to buy Paramount, which lost $35 million in the first quarter on such big-budget flops as Blue Chips. UBS Securities Inc. analyst Edward Hatch estimates that Gump could add a full 10% to the estimated $1.2 billion in cash flow the combined companies will generate this year.
Gump wasn't a hit waiting to happen. The film had Oscar-winner Hanks in the lead role, but it had none of the staples of a summer blockbuster: high-octane chase scenes or steamy groping. Moreover, the story line of a simpleton didn't lend itself to product tie-ins or joint marketing with cereal companies. "No Happy Meals were being sold for this one," says producer Wendy Finerman, who nurtured the film through its nine-year Hollywood odyssey. "We knew it was a great film, but the question was how to get anyone in to see it."
To generate the buzz the film needed, Paramount spent nearly double the $12 million the industry currently averages to promote a major film. A four-minute trailer, twice the usual length, was placed in 11,000 theaters, vs. the usual 5,000. Paramount produced four different versions of TV commercials, each 60 seconds instead of the usual 30. Motorists in the top 20 markets were bombarded with billboards proclaiming: "Gump Happens." By the time the film opened on July 6--a week earlier than planned to avoid Arnold Schwarzenegger's special-effects-jammed True Lies--8 of 10 U.S. consumers had seen Forrest Gump ads an average four times apiece, says Paramount's marketing president, Arthur Cohen.
By then, the Gump buzz was ablaze. Hanks was on the cover of Us magazine, Gentleman's Quarterly, USA Weekend, and was making the rounds of Letterman, Leno, and the morning shows. Para-mount's Pocket Books unit shipped 800,000-plus paperback copies of Winston Groom's 1986 novel and an additional 140,000 copies of a specially compiled book of Gump-isms. A double CD of the movie's soundtrack of '60s vintage hits, distributed by Sony Corp.'s Epic music unit, has already passed the 1 million mark and is selling at a faster rate than the 3 million units of the hit Sleepless in Seattle.
UNCERTAIN FUTURE. How much further can Gump go? With box-office sales of $109 million in just 18 days, it falls close behind Jurassic Park and Batman as the fastest films to gross $100 million. Viacom officials say privately they're expecting the movie to approach the $242 million generated by Raiders of the Lost Ark, Paramount's top seller. Plans are under way to distribute the movie overseas this fall and on video next year.
Still, it's uncertain that Gump signals a return to Paramount's '80s heyday. The studio's next release, Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger, starring Harrison Ford, is getting a boost from trailers that appear before most showings of Gump. Down the road is the first film to star the cast from its TV hit, Star Trek: The Next Generation. "I'd like to think we're on a real roll," says Paramount's film-unit chairman, Sherry Lansing, who green-lighted Gump six weeks after taking over in late 1992. But even Lansing knows nothing is forever in Hollywood. "Anytime you spend the kind of money we spend on any film, you're taking a huge risk," she says. "Right now, we're all feeling a little like Forrest Gump around here." No one more than Sumner Redstone.Ron Grover in Los Angeles, with Mark Landler in New York