Cover Story

Saturday Night Fever!

Romantic movies equal box office gold -- Why date movies like ''The Bodyguard,'' ''Benny & Joon,'' and ''Indecent Proposal'' are raking in the dough

Forget market research. You don't need an MBA to figure out who goes to movies and why. Just head for your local theater on a Saturday night and watch lovers of all ages filing in, a package of Twizzlers in one hand, their partner's hand clasped in the other.

But while movies have long been the perfect weekend activity for two, major studios, in recent years, have lost sight of the kinds of films couples want to see. With few exceptions, movies have been either gentle ''women's pictures'' or brutal testosterone fests.

And then along came The Bodyguard, Indecent Proposal, and Benny & Joon.

Let us all together welcome back the date movie.

You remember the date movie. The romantic film that functions like a whiff of pheromones. A couple sit in the dark. Suddenly, she begins to feel as sensuous as Demi Moore wearing Thierry Mugler. He imagines he's as dashing as Robert Redford, even without the yacht or the Rolls-Royce. By the time the credits roll, they remember why they were attracted to each other in the first place. Sometimes.

''I would rather have spent two hours cleaning my bathroom than seeing Indecent Proposal. I only went because my girlfriend wanted to see it.'' — Doug, 31, an attorney
''It was entertaining!'' — his girlfriend, Suzanne, 25, a student

In just three weeks, Indecent Proposal, with its controversial premise (a billionaire offers a young couple $1 million for a night with the wife) and all-star cast, has grossed more than $60 million; MGM's Benny & Joon, aimed at a younger crowd, has also done surprisingly well, earning $8 million in two weeks of comparatively limited release. And the phenomenal success of last November's The Bodyguard, which has grossed $120 million, ensures that Hollywood is taking this genre seriously once more.

''For many years, (moviegoers) were interested in more blatantly sexual films and/or very violent films,'' says A.D. Murphy, Variety's box office analyst. ''Now the date movie is coming back into vogue.''

Benny & Joon director Jeremiah Chechik agrees. ''When you run through a period of intensely masculine movies, like Die Hard, the audience needs an alternative,'' he says. ''That may be a more feminine kind of movie, one that is balanced towards emotions rather than actions.''

Others believe appealing to both sexes is the key. ''A date movie is neither a man's movie nor a woman's movie,'' says Nora Ephron, who wrote 1989's Date Movie Hall of Famer When Harry Met Sally. ''They're movies that women want to see and men pretend they don't want to see but secretly do.''

''Under Siege would not be a date movie because it's strictly a male fantasy,'' says Indecent Proposal screenwriter Amy Holden Jones. ''Fried Green Tomatoes wouldn't be a date movie because there aren't that many sympathetic men.''

When a date movie works, it's the woman who picks and the man who follows — but once they buy tickets the film has to offer something for both of them. ''That's one of the reasons The Bodyguard was such a big hit,'' Ephron says. ''Guns were fired. Car tires screeched. And there was love.''

''I get to pick lovey-dovey movies; he gets to pick the action movies.'' — Jules, 27, a marketing assistant
''Indecent Proposal makes relationships look pretty bleak. It's not 'May the best man win.' It's 'May the richest man win.''' — her boyfriend, Tim, 26, a bar manager

While the closest thing to an action sequence in Proposal takes place on a bed covered with cash, the movie manages to tap into both the female and male psyches. ''I think Indecent Proposal touches a nerve because it possibly could happen to you,'' says director Adrian Lyne. ''[Moviegoers] can put themselves in the parts of all three characters. That's fun.''

Lyne argues that his film works because it's ''shamelessly romantic,'' but that may depend on who's talking. Originally, Jones wrote a climactic scene between Redford and Moore in which Moore's character was firmly in control of her destiny. In the final rewrite, with dialogue by an uncredited William Goldman, Redford's character is running the show.

''It is endlessly frustrating that they would turn the power away from the woman,'' says Jones.

But Lyne, who admits the film's million-dollar offer may be ''politically incorrect,'' counters that Proposal, for the most part, empowers women. ''The idea of being a whore for a night is kind of exciting for a woman,'' says Lyne. ''And I am quite certain the sex would be stupendous.''

In Benny & Joon, on the other hand, the focus is less on sex and power than on love. That, coupled with Johnny Depp's popularity among teenage girls, has made it a draw for the Generation X audience. ''It's a film driven by young females, but they're bringing their boyfriends,'' says Robert Dingilian, MGM's executive vice president of worldwide marketing. Those men may be connecting not only with Depp's gentle rebel but also with Joon's self-sacrificing, guy's-guy brother, played by Aidan Quinn. ''My character is the provider,'' says Quinn, ''the one who goes out in the workaday world.''

While a romance can cut across generational lines, younger audiences may be more responsive to a hopeful story than to a cynical one. ''Indecent Proposal may be a negative view of relationships, outside of its tacked-on ending,'' says Chechik. ''Ours is the flip side. It makes you feel good about whatever romantic notions you have. Men want that as much as women.''

''This makes you turn to [the person you're with] and say, 'I could fall in love with you and you could fall in love with me,''' says Susan Arnold, who produced Benny & Joon with Donna Roth. ''People are tired of hard reality; they'd like an escape. A date movie puts you in a receptive state of mind.''

''We have two children, so [we see movies] whenever we can escape from them.'' — Eliana, 36, a nurse
''If somebody offered me a million for one night with my wife, I would jump at it. And if she didn't go for it, I'd be convinced that she's certifiably insane.'' — her husband, Bob, 40, a photographer

Ain't love grand? — With additional reporting by Julian Guthrie

Originally posted May 07, 1993 Published in issue #169 May 07, 1993 Order article reprints