(Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today)
They found success the hard way, overcoming humble beginnings and a lack of financing on the way to mainstream popularity. Susan Wloszczyna tells the story behind the top 12 phenoms of the past 25 years.
1. Porky's (1982)
Sound bite: "I'm gonna get laid. Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus." — Pee Wee (Dan Monahan)Plot: Libidinous Florida high school guys in the '50s seek satisfaction at the ramshackle pleasure palace known as Porky's. A phenom is born:American Graffiti and Animal House mixed nostalgia and sex first. But what Porky's lacked in artistry and Belushi antics it made up for with full-frontal nudity, off-color jokes and a loudly aroused Kim Cattrall. "Porky's did a simple thing: telling it as it was," says director Bob Clark, who based his script on memories from Fort Lauderdale High. "I wanted to look at how Americans developed our sexuality at that time. It was never treated with any honesty before. Just some Beach Blanket Bingo nonsense." How the audience was hooked: Execs at 20th Century Fox "didn't want to release it and wouldn't show the movie to test it," Clark says. A screening finally was held in San Diego. A line formed 90 minutes before the start. "They smelled something about this movie," Clark says. Lasting impact: The Farrelly brothers. The American Pie series. All owe a debt to Porky's for demonstrating how to milk titillating titters.
2. The Terminator (1984)
Sound bite: "I'll be back." —The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) Plot: Machines send a cyborg back in time to kill the mother of a yet-unborn human hero. A phenom is born: In the early '80s, James Cameron's lone directing credit was Piranha II. And no one who caught Schwarzenegger in the ridiculous if profitable Conan the Barbarian adventures took the ex-Mr. Universe seriously. But playing a mechanical monster turned Schwarzenegger's acting limitations into a plus. How the audience was hooked: The poster was killer: Arnold with sunglasses, scowl and massive gun. Although Orion chairman Arthur Krim didn't think much of the film, action fans ate it up. Barbara Boyle, Orion production chief, says he later confessed, "I don't know what the audience wants. Clearly, The Terminator is it." Lasting impact: Cameron would captain 1997 all-time box-office champ Titanic. Schwarzenegger ascended as Hollywood's top action hero until the century's end. The film was one of the first big hits of the home-video era, leading to the $200 million-plus success of 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. No wonder there is talk of a T:4.
3. Crocodile Dundee (1986)
Sound bite: "That's not a knife. That's a knife."- Dundee (Paul Hogan). Plot: Down Under Tarzan meets N.Y. Jane and relies on his native know-how in the Big Apple. A phenom is born: If the scaffolder turned product spokesman's laidback charm could start a run on Foster's beer & encourage a 40% surge in Australian tourism, why not sell that same genial persona in a movie feature? How the audience was hooked: Dundee's clean-cut laughs could be safely shared by the entire family. Or as Hogan once said: "It's not full of boob jokes or lavatory-wall humor, and the guy looks at the world through rose-colored glasses and gives everyone the benefit of a doubt." Lasting impact: Dundee broke records for an Aussie import, and Hogan paved the way for Aussie-bred talents like Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman. Alas, all Hogan could do was degrees of Dundee.
4. Dirty Dancing (1987)
Sound bite: "Nobody puts Baby in a corner."- Working-class mambo king Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). Plot: At a Catskills resort in 1963, sheltered Baby's life is forever changed by dance teacher Johnny. A phenom is born: It was quickly clear that this summer romance was a swooner. "At the first screening in New York, it scored like a real studio movie," says MJ Peckos, head fmarketing & distribution at Vestron Video. "It captured a time that people related to." The real pay dirt, though, was in the suggestive dancing and catchy music, a phenom of its own. The film spun off two best-selling soundtrack albums and four hit singles, as well as a touring stage show. How the audience was hooked: Clichés aside, the crowd-pleaser packed with sexual heat, girlish emotions and the Oscar-winning tune (I've Had) The Time of My Life connected strongly with women. As for the magnetic Swayze, a few pelvic thrusts to Otis Redding's Love Man was all it took to achieve superhunkdom. Lasting impact: The DVD continues to sell well, and a 20th anniversary edition is planned. A stage version is flourishing overseas.
5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Sound bite: "Cowabunga!" — Turtle battle cry. Plot: Pets mutate into human-size reptile crimefighters beneath New York's streets. A phenom is born: The attraction of these nunchuck-swinging, pizza-gorging wisecrackers confounded most adults. "I had never heard of them," says Robert Shaye, founder and co-chairman of New Line. "But I listened to my colleagues, and they had 7-, 8-year-old kids who were completely gaga over the Turtles. Children embrace things that are subversive." How the audience was hooked: Unlike most tie-in targets, the comic-book superheroes and cartoon stars came to the big screen with a merchandising empire in place. They were presold and prepared to rock the box office, opening to $25.4 million. Lasting impact: The Turtles dragged kid culture out of the Care Bear dark ages. After a good run in the '90s, with more than $4 billion in entertainment and product sales, they're having a revival. A CG-animated feature is due next year.
6. Boyz N the Hood (1991)
Sound bite: "Either they don't know, don't show or don't care about what's going on in the 'hood."- Doughboy (Ice Cube), watching the news. Plot: Three high school seniors try to survive gang-infested South Central L.A.A phenom is born: Spike Lee's breakthrough She's Gotta Have It ushered in a new wave of black cinema, but few were as acclaimed as John Singleton's filmmaking debut. What set Boyz apart from the pack was its portrait of a caring single father (Laurence Fishburne) and his influence on his son (Cuba Gooding Jr.). "It was a rough and raw look at South Central, but it also had this great relationship," says Mark Gill, who handled publicity at Columbia. At 24, Singleton became the youngest Oscar nominee ever for best director and the first black director so honored. How the audience was hooked: "We first sold it to the African-American community, but we also went after white kids who were listening to rap," Gill says. Sporadic violence marred the film's $10 million opening on 837 screens, causing eight theaters to pull it. Because of demand, it expanded to 920 a week later. Lasting impact: Singleton continues directing (Shaft) and producing (Hustle & Flow). The cast was a launching pad of black talent. Ice Cube proved rappers could act, and Hollywood keeps plundering the music, themes and stars of the hip-hop world.
7. The Crying Game (1992)
Sound bite: "I can't help it. It's in my nature." — Irish Republican Army prisoner Jody (Forest Whitaker)Plot: IRA terrorist grows close to his hostage. When matters end tragically, he escapes to London and looks up the soldier's mistress, Dil. A phenom is born: The surprise twist was a curse at first. Studios wouldn't touch the script by Dublin-based filmmaker Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa), fearing that the plot shocker — she was a he — would be a turnoff. Producer Stephen Woolley dug into his own holdings to raise the money to produce the film. When Miramax, which had rejected the script, saw the finished product, it snapped it up. "It was Harvey at his best," says Gerry Rich, head of marketing, of boss Harvey Weinstein. "Miramax would take on films no one else would and approach them in a renegade way." Jaye Davidson, who had no acting experience, was discovered at a party and was Oscar-nominated for his beguiling Dil. How the audience was hooked: Weinstein's rep as a relentless promoter was honed by the stunts he pulled to attract attention to The Crying Game, publicizing that the film had a "secret" yet insisting that no one reveal it. He and his staff made calls to assure that the media played along. Lasting impact:The Crying Game took Miramax's PR game to the next level (though blogs have made such secrets obsolete) and legitimized the gender-bending genre. Many embraced its exploitation of a twist, for good (The Sixth Sense) and bad (The Game).
8. Scream (1996)
Sound bite: "Never say,'Who's there?' Don't you watch scary movies? It's a death wish." - The killerPlot: Teens who have seen way too many slasher flicks are stalked by a ghost-masked fiend. A phenom is born: Scribe Kevin Williamson's Scream was a true original, an arch spoof stitched from used parts found in such scary thrillers as Halloween and Friday the 13th. Bob Weinstein, the Miramax co-chief who ran fledging genre label Dimension, took a stab at Scream and wisely hired veteran slice-and-dicer Wes Craven as director. "It was taking an old cliché and giving it a new twist, reinventing horror films with irony," says Mark Gill, Miramax's then-marketing maven. "It scared you, yet you were in on the joke." How the audience was hooked: The most terrifying decision was the opening date: Dec.20. Horror and ho-ho-ho weren't supposed to be mixed. "Filmmakers were saying we were just dumping the movie," Gill says. Although it grossed only $6.4 million on its opening weekend, it hit $21.3 million the next. Lasting impact: The Scream trilogy re-awakened interest in horror, a trend that has yet to abate. After Dimension's success, other companies started genre divisions,including Focus with Rogue (Shaun of the Dead) and Sony with Screen Gems (Resident Evil).
9. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Sound bite: "I'm afraid to close my eyes. I'm afraid to open them." — Heather Donahue, leader of the projectPlot: Three student filmmakers become lost in the Maryland woods while shooting a documentary about a creepy local legend. A phenom is born: Blair Witch's minimalist techniques, complete with shaky camera, led to freakouts at the Sundance Film Festival. "The comment we heard the most is that guys our age won't get it, but the young people on the acquisition team get it, and it's the scariest thing they've seen," says Steve Beeks, at Artisan, buyer of the film. Then there was the website, created by the movie's makers months before release, jammed with lore, police findings and extra footage that gave the impression that the events were real. How the audience was hooked: The interactive Web material was light-years beyond other movie sites. Artisan intentionally overpacked sneak previews in college towns, causing lines and setting house records. As a result, Blair Witch became the highest-grossing non-studio film of all time — until 2002's My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Lasting impact: Blair Witch was a case study in bewitching moviegoers via computer. Less gore, more psychological chills- also effective in 1999's The Sixth Sense- was the scare standard for a spell.
10. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
Sound bite: "There are two kinds of people- Greeks, and everyone else who wish they was Greek."- Gus Portokalos (Michael Constantine). Plot: Toula (Nia Vardalos), a wallflower who works in her family's Greek restaurant, is rescued by a white-bread prince. A phenom is born: Vardalos based her screenplay on her one-woman show. Rita Wilson- Mrs. Tom Hanks- saw the play and ended up co-producing the film version with her husband. It really didn't matter that the broad comedy was a glorified sitcom. Everyone could relate: Whose relatives aren't meddlesome? How the audience was hooked: Critics were dismissive, but IFC honcho Bob Berney knew better. He had seen an older audience in L.A. falling out of their chairs with riotous laughter. The film opened on 108 screens in eight cities. But not too many- the better to pack theaters. "We kept the film small to make it big," he says. When it went wide months later, "people were being dragged to it by friends and relatives." Lasting impact. Vardalos' script was nominated for an Oscar and she had a brief TV spinoff. Most influential was Berney's blueprint for buzz on the cheap. As president of Newmarket, he used the experience to push 2004's The Passion of the Christ, which topped Greek Wedding as the highest-grossing non-studio film.
11. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Sound bite: "I spent it with my uncle in Alaska hunting wolverines!" • Napoleon (Jon Heder) on what he did last summer. Plot: A teen misfit in Preston, Idaho, contends with his eccentric clan and manages his friend's unlikely campaign for class president. A phenom is born: It's about time that the kids of '00s got their own icon. Napoleon is a nerd defiant, an underdog snarling at a world that barely knows he exists. Critics were mystified by this draggy pageant of the mundanely bizarre. But Fox Searchlight didn't buy the Sundance hit to please cranky grownups. One hang-up: "I knew there was no way to advertise the film," says Nancy Utley, who devised the marketing. "If you showed individual scenes, they would look too weird." How the audience was hooked: If you've seen a "Vote for Pedro" T-shirt, you've felt the power of Dynamite, fed by screenings — 350 in 65 cities — 10 weeks before the opening. Added incentive: free T-shirts. "Those people became walking billboards," Utley says. But what rocketed Napoleon to instant cultdom was its Internet site, which encouraged fan club members (250,000 and still growing) to recruit friends to join. Lasting impact: The film only reinforced the importance of the Internet as a tool to stoke must-see desires.
12. March of the Penguins (2005)
Sound bite: "This is a love story." — Narrator Morgan Freeman. Plot: Emperor penguins in Antarctica make an arduous 70-mile trek to breeding grounds. A phenom is born: When the French documentary was shown at Sundance, reps from 20 companies walked out. But Warner Independent Pictures stuck around. "There was potential in a story about the extraordinary lengths one family goes to survive and prosper," says former president Mark Gill. A thumping techno soundtrack and too-cute penguin voiceovers had to go, replaced by a symphonic score and Freeman's rich narration. How the audience was won: The film went out as an art film on just four screens in late June. "We could see the possibility of crossing over to families in suburbia," Gill says. By mid-August, it was on more than 2,000 screens. "It worked for everyone, except maybe the Rob Zombie crowd." Lasting impact: The Oscar winner became the second-highestgrossing documentary after 2004's Fahrenheit 9/11. Two computer-animated features showcase the birds, this fall's Happy Feet and next summer's Surf's Up. Plus, a parody: Farce of the Penguins.