A quiet entrance

Category: Phantom of the Opera News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: January 14, 2005 | Publication: Buffalo News | Author: Toni Ruberto
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For a movie based on the world's top-grossing stage production of all time, the long-awaited film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" was surprisingly quiet when it debuted in Buffalo as part of a limited release last month.
In fact, you may still not even know it's here until you read this. There are no larger-than-life-sized cutouts like the ones of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in theater lobbies; not even a small poster teasing that the "Phantom" was lurking.

While the grandiose film bellows in all of its opulence, its release was quiet and unassuming.

"It's been weird. There's only word-of-mouth to get people to see it," says Janice Mergenhagen of Buffalo, who eagerly awaited the film's release after seeing Webber's musical more than 100 times in cities including Los Angeles, Atlanta, St. Louis and New York.

That lack of a marketing blitz common to action yarns or end-of-the-world summer blockbusters is only one of the challenges in bringing a musical to the screen in modern-day Hollywood. In fact, by Hollywood standard's, the "Phantom" release is actually larger than usual for a musical, says Brandon Grey, president of Box Office Mojo, a Web site dedicated to tracking the box office industry.

"Pretty much every significant musical in recent years - "Evita,' "Moulin Rouge,' "Chicago' - has opened in about 100 theaters," he says, discussing the idea of box office platforming where movie opens in a small number of theaters and gradually expands.

The plan for the "Phantom," he says, was to release it in 622 theaters at Christmas for award consideration and expand it wide to 2,000 theaters next Friday.

"That's when it will get a major push," he says.

Musicals generally have a difficult time being made in Hollywood because modern audiences aren't as forgiving for the conventions of a musical. While audiences and critics are willing to suspend disbelief for the outrageous stories and overblown action sequences of summer blockbusters, they aren't as forgiving with musicals. Critics, especially, haven't been kind to "Phantom," although most of the negativity is a backlash against Webber's "pop opera" style.

"You either go with it or you don't," film reviewer Scott Holleran of Box Office Mojo says about "Phantom." "It's like "Lord of the Rings' - you either give yourself over to it or you don't. Candles don't rise from under the water and light."

Only a handful of musicals like "Grease" (1978) and "Annie" (1982) have been successful since Hollywood's golden age when such gems as "Singin' in the Rain" and "An American in Paris" were made.

Even two of those "significant" musicals Grey described - "Evita," also based on a Webber musical, and Baz Luhrman's highly imaginative "Moulin Rouge" - only garnered $50 million and $60 million, respectively, at the box office. It took the big-screen adaptation "Chicago" to prove that musicals may again be a viable film commodity, thanks to a $170 million domestic box office and six Academy Awards.

It was 18 years before Webber's musical became a movie. Although his divorce from Sarah Brightman, the star of his original "Phantom" production, complicated matters, the film industry's general caution regarding the genre still played a heavy role. Even Webber acknowledges that the success of "Chicago" worked to his advantage. "I think there's no question the critical and financial success of "Chicago' helped us get "Phantom' done," he has told reporters.

But in an industry oversaturated with testosterone-laden, violence-prone films, Box Office Mojo's Holleran sees an opening for escapist musicals and gorgeous films such as "Phantom of the Opera."

"Musicals are making a bit of a comeback and there is a market for them. Audiences are fed up with asinine movies; they're fed up with "Something About Mary's,' " Holleran says. "I'm so tired of films like "Monster's Ball,' "Leaving Las Vegas,' "Monster,' - I call them films with drooling malcontents. That's where "Phantom' works - it doesn't promise you anything more than a few hours of spectacle and glamour. (Director Joel) Schumacher gave a lot of interesting, beautiful things to look at and that's the whole point of cinema."

And that's something moviegoers and fans of Webber's original stage production, like Mergenhagen, can appreciate.

"I think it's a great adaptation," she says. "It is visually stunning. You sit there and hold your breath through the whole movie."