Computer-generated special effects are all the rage in Hollywood. Witness such recent major movies as Twister, with its roaring digital tornadoes, and Dragonheart, featuring a dragon that talks (thanks to you know what) like Sean Connery. Funny thing, then, that Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. may have the blockbuster of the year in Independence Day. Scheduled for release on July 3, it's an old-fashioned disaster flick in which low-tech, small-scale models of everything from the White House to the City of Los Angeles are summarily destroyed, more or less realistically.
Whatever it may lack in digital pizzazz, Independence Day has a weird, paranoiac appeal. Aliens invade Earth, obliterating Los Angeles, Washington, and New York and pitting the world's armies against the advancing spaceships. Even before much of Hollywood has seen the finished print of the film, the buzz surrounding it is spectacular. "The question," says John N. Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., which handicaps films for theater owners, "is how many records it will break." Tom Sherak, Fox's executive vice-president for marketing, is already glowing. "I'm not going to say this is Jurassic Park, because you never know until the film opens," he says, "but this has that same kind of feel."
Record-breaking ticket sales would be welcome news for Rupert Murdoch's film studio, which has released only six movies this year and has captured a minuscule 7.8% of the overall box office, making it Hollywood's No.7 studio. But Independence Day isn't a sure record-buster yet. The summer schedule is already crowded with current sizzlers Mission: Impossible and Twister and muscular new entries such as Eraser. That leaves Fox struggling just to get Independence Day on its targeted 3,500 screens for the big July 4 weekend--nearly 1,000 fewer than Mission: Impossible opened on for Memorial Day weekend.
If Independence Day can triumph despite such challenges, it will be a major coup for Fox. Budgeted at just $60 million, small by summer blockbuster standards, it was brought to the studio by a pair of relative unknowns, German-born Roland Emmerich and onetime Broadway actor Dean Devlin. The duo had a scant track record until they made the 1994 sci-fi hit Stargate for France's Canal Plus. Several studios balked at Independence Day, say industry sources, when the team demanded a healthy fee for the script and insisted that Emmerich direct. "We all wondered if it could make money," recalls Mark Canton, chairman of Sony Corp.'s motion-picture group. "And now, we all wish we had it."
To keep costs down, the film stars such B-list actors as Bad Boys' Will Smith as a fighter pilot and Casper lead Bill Pullman as the American President. Extras included pilots from the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Orange County. Instead of using pricier computer-generated special effects, the crew camped out for weeks in a converted Hughes Aircraft hangar, constructing a 20-foot-by-8-foot Los Angeles street, a scaled-down U.S. Capitol, and hundreds of other tiny buildings. Destruction of the cities was accomplished with tilted cameras and flame throwers. Independence Day eventually came in at around $65 million.
BLITZ. Marketing the film is its own challenge, though, since mass destruction rarely finds its way onto fast-food soft-drink cups. Instead, Fox launched its media campaign with a single spot on the Super Bowl and a blitz of trailers in movie theaters featuring the destruction of the White House. In New York, theatre crowds now cheer when the trailer comes up on the screen.
Other low-cost marketing deals include $7 million worth of advertising in conjunction with Adolph Coors Co. and the Travelodge hotel chain, and a half-hour Independence Day special that will run on the Fox network right before the film's release. Other specials will run on MTV Networks and the Sci-Fi Channel. MCI Communications Corp., a partner with Fox parent News Corp. on a satellite-television venture, put Independence Day logos on its calling card, and Fox has hung signs on buses in major metropolitan areas that read: "July 3. Rush Hour is Over."
Will Independence Day live up to its early buzz? Well, with Twister approaching $200 million in box-office receipts after just five weeks in theaters, it's clear audiences love a good disaster. Now, Fox is hoping they'll dig the end of the world--the old-fashioned way.