Someday, when Harvard Business School offers a class in the Art of Movie Controversy, budding Hollywood tycoons are bound to study the $36.4 million opening of Interview With the Vampire.
Why? Consider the scenario: A producer makes a movie from a best-selling novel. Despite the story's dark undertones, the director decides to cast a cute, apple-pie actor in the lead role. Critics howl. The novelist a flamboyant figure with a loyal following makes cutting remarks. It's a familiar formula, one that has slain plenty of predecessors remember Bonfire of the Vanities? But instead of doing a belly flop at the box office, Vampire soared, making its team of producers look like the savviest strategists since Newt Gingrich.
What lessons can Hollywood learn? Take out your notebooks:
Get your author to bad-mouth the project.
Oddly, after all the venom passed back and forth, Warner Bros. should thank heaven for Anne Rice. Originally, the Vampire author bared her fangs at the decision to cast Tom Cruise as the plasma-guzzling dandy Lestat, but in September she watched a video of the Neil Jordan film and publicly changed her mind.
In retrospect, studio honchos and fans agree, Rice's chomp of approval gave the film a shot in the arm, persuading her cultists to flock to theaters and bolstering the idea that Vampire was a Richter scale pop-culture event. ''If she had come out and said she didn't like Tom Cruise's Lestat, it would have done some serious damage to the movie,'' theorizes Warner's Barry Reardon. At least one Rice aficionado concurs. ''After she retracted her statement, I figured I'd go,'' said James Wilson, on line in Manhattan for the first showing. ''Otherwise, I would've just waited for the video.''
In the middle rounds of the Rice-Cruise grudge match, Vampire producer David Geffen did something that's rare in the cool confines of Hollywood. He spoke his mind. By vigorously defending Cruise and dismissing Rice's worries as petty, Geffen left the final verdict up to the proper crowd: the audience. ''I'm curious to see how Tom Cruise does,'' said one filmgoer. Echoed another: ''I don't know if Tom Cruise will live up to my expectations, but I want to see it before everyone else so I can get my own opinion.'' Bingo.
Get American darlings to trash your movie three weeks before it comes out.
The Rice turnaround wasn't Vampire's only pint of free publicity. In October, talk-show empress Oprah Winfrey announced that the rat scene had sent her scurrying into the lobby. ''I have one thing to say to Oprah,'' director Jordan shot back at the premiere. ''She should have stayed.'' The lesson? Controversy, like cholesterol, appears to come in two varieties: bad and good. Even when Liz Smith tried to drive a stake into Vampire's heart after the giant opening weekend ''It's just a lot of gnashing canine teeth and gratuitous violence,'' she groused the movie only seemed to crank out gallons of the good.
Don't be afraid of the competition.
With Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein still in theaters, some folks fretted about a monster glut. After Frankenstein screenings, Warner's Reardon says, ''We got a better feel that it wouldn't hurt us as much as we anticipated.''
Leave 'em hungry for more.
Vampires live forever, which leaves plenty of time for sequels. Box office tallies weren't even firm before Geffen leaked the news that both Cruise and Jordan had signed on for a second dose one that would ''tell the prior history of the character Lestat,'' Jordan says.
Meanwhile, with executives predicting that Vampire would blast through the $100 million mark over the Thanksgiving holiday, the Irish director could only ponder what kind of gift he might secure from Geffen and his new blood brothers at Warner: ''Maybe they'll give me a coffin,'' he kids. A perfect place to bury the controversy. (With reporting by Casey Davidson, Gregg Kilday, Jessica Shaw and Michael Szymanski)