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Interview with Tom Wilhite

"Tron," the $19 million computer thriller from Walt Disney Productions, opened on July 9 around the country, and that was the day most of the nation's movie critics published their reviews. But the critics were beaten to the punch by an earlier reviewer, whose verdict on the movie appeared in July 8 editions, on financial pages. Ever since, the folks at Disney have been pounding their collective heads against the wall because of that advance review.

Many of the nation's movie critics admired "Tron," to one degree or another, with various reservations. But the early-bird critic was much less enthusiastic. He said that the film told a "seriously flawed, disjointed story," that its much-heralded computerized special effects were "distracting," and that the audience was so indifferent that "35 minutes into the film, the coughing started, and halfway through, people began to talk."

To rate new movies, many newspapers use a system of awarding one to four stars. In Chicago, both daily newspapers gave "Tron" four stars, the highest rating. But the reviewer on the Thursday financial pages rated "Tron" at only two stars, max.

The man the wire services were quoting in the Thursday story was Theodore James Jr., of the San Francisco financial firm Montgomery Securities. He is a stock-market analyst, and he was one of about 1,200 people who saw a press preview of "Tron" on Tuesday morning, July 6, in the plush Los Angeles theater of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. After seeing the film, James advised the stock traders working for his firm to sell Disney stock.

His "sell" order was picked up around the country by other brokers eager for advance word on the new Disney picture, and Disney stock was delayed in opening on the morning of July 7 by an avalanche of sell orders. It opened at 55 1/4, off 3 3/8, and has remained lower ever since, creeping up to 56 5/8 on July 9, the day "Tron" opened, and falling to 55 1/8 last Tuesday, after the results of "Tron's" first weekend in theaters were known.

It is not ordinarily the film critic's job to comment on the stock-market performance of a movie studio, but, then again, it's not usually a financial analyst's job to review a movie before the critics do. In recent years, however, as the major studios have been absorbed by conglomerates and the minor studios like Disney have diversified into allied fields like amusement parks, advance word on a major new film is a valuable piece of stock-market information. If investors had been able to anticipate, for example, the enormous success of "Star Wars" in 1977, they could have cleaned up with Twentieth Century-Fox stock.

In the case of Disney, the market is looking for a turnaround in management after years during which Walt Disney's magic touch was lost in a series of dreary children's movies aimed at an audience that no longer exists. If "Tron" is a blockbuster, the theory goes, Disney will be sending a message to investors that it's no longer committed to the G-rated hinterlands of Silly Putty, million-dollar ducks and flying four-posters.

Even within this context, however, Ted James' advance review of "Tron" was one of the more bizarre episodes in recent movie opening history.

Precisely because Disney stock was hanging in the balance while awaiting the opening of "Tron," the studio pursued a calculated strategy in opening the film. As long ago as the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, Disney was showing a four-minute reel of "Tron" highlights, featuring the visionary new computer animation technology that the whole movie would display. Since January, a 20-minute selection of "Tron's" most exciting scenes has been shown to opinion-makers around the country, and, indeed, Disney production chief Tom Wilhite was in Chicago June 7 to host a morning screening of the highlights at the Carnegie.

Although the 20-minute reel inspired interest in movie and investment circles, nobody was allowed to see the full-length film in advance, until favorable stories in the July 5 issues of Time and Newsweek revealed that the newsmagazines had been awarded an advance peek.

All of this carefully orchestrated pre-opening strategy broke down on July 6, however, when Ted James flew down to Los Angeles and attended the press preview at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. On the same day, on the opposite coast, three screenings of "Tron" were held at Loews State Two, a giant movie palace on Broadway, but the Los Angeles and New York screenings couldn't have been more different.

The screenings were a tale of two cities. I attended the 5 p.m. screening on Broadway, a few hours after Ted James walked out of the academy's screening on Wilshire Blvd. At the screening I attended, in a vast old movie palace bombarded with Dolby stereo and sporting a giant screen, the audience consisted mostly of teenagers and young adults who had gotten free tickets in a rock radio station promotion. Scattered through this crowd were a few hundred ringers like myself. This audience liked "Tron." It was not restless, did not talk, stirred attentively during moments of especially brilliant computer wizardry and applauded the movie at the end.

Three thousand miles away, what sort of audience surrounded Ted James? I was not there, but I have attended many press screenings in the academy's theater, and I easily can imagine the composition of the crowd. To begin with, there were few, if any, actual members of the public in the academy's theater. All 1,200 tickets were provided free to members of the press, publicists, financial analysts like James and other insiders. It was an industry crowd.

If, as James reported, the audience indeed began to cough, talk and get restless after the first half-hour, it was exhibiting more patience than many industry crowds do. Hollywood press previews are notorious for their rude, inattentive and easily distracted audiences, and I will never forget the evening in 1967 when I attended the first press preview of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Half the audience walked out, led by Rock Hudson, who marched down the aisle, asking, "Will somebody explain to me what the hell this is all about?"

Nor do analysts have a flawless track record even after they have seen new movies: In one celebrated case, New York magazine sent a financial wizard to Phoenix to slip into a sneak preview of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and he returned with the news that the movie, now the ninth most popular film in history, would be a bomb.

After James' negative blast in July 8 newspapers, "Tron" opened July 9 to fairly good business. The movie did $4.8 million at the box office over its first three days - far below the all-time opening-weekend record $14.35 million set by "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," but a respectable gross for a film showing in far fewer theaters.

In Chicago, the movie did an impressive $35,000 weekend at the McClurg Court theater, also was strong at the River Oaks and Nortown, and did quite well at the Will Rogers on Belmont (a neighborhood theater known in Chicago as a "Disney house" because it routinely plays almost every single Disney release). "Tron" did badly, however, at the downtown United Artists theater, which attracts mostly black filmgoers who may have stayed away because of Disney's recent track record of innocuous suburban entertainments. On Tuesday, after "Tron's" opening weekend, I telephoned Tom Wilhite, the bright 29-year-old who moved up from Disney's publicity and advertising office to become the youngest production chief in Hollywood. He seemed cheerful about the film's box-office grosses.

"The picture is doing well in the major cities," he said. "We're happy about Chicago, New York, LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Kansas City . . . whatever you'd call a major city, the exhibitors are happy. We have decided to elevate the advertising to increase audience awareness in smaller markets, and, starting Thursday, we'll spend more money in them. We expect the second weekend to be bigger than the first."

In other words, I said, "Tron" isn't doing as well in smaller markets?

"We're asking ourselves if we've done a good job of telling those markets what the picture is. I've visited a lot of theaters around here - in Pasadena, Westwood, the Chinese on Hollywood Blvd. - and what's encouraging to me is that we're getting audiences of teenagers, late teenagers and young adults, instead of the so-called usual Disney audience of kids and their parents. We're getting the same age groups of moviegoers as 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial' or 'Raiders.' "

I asked Wilhite if he could make a guess about "Tron's" eventual box office totals.

"No, because if this weekend goes up, I'd have to revise everything. Also, I think the Securities and Exchange Commission forbids me to speculate on things like that."

Speaking of the SEC, I said, what do you think about Ted James' advance blast at the film?

"Well, Ted James' line on 'Tron' has essentially been the same since he saw the first four-minute trailer on the film. His response to the full-length feature hadn't changed a bit since he predicted what the movie would be like."

In other words, I said, James was ready to sell Disney before he saw "Tron?"

No comment.

And after he sold it, he bad-mouthed the movie in the press so other investors would sell it, too, and create a self-fulfilling prophecy?

No comment.

Would you invite financial analysts to a preview screening in the future?

"Probably not, to be quite honest. Not because we'd be afraid for one of our movies, but because people like to make a name for themselves in any profession, and there's no better way to attract attention to yourself than through controversy. He has a right to his opinion, but I'm sorry the movie opened surrounded by that controversy. Since 'Tron' has opened, all of the reviews have noted its innovative nature. If people aren't fond of the picture, they criticize its story, but nobody has said they don't like the visual design. And the visuals are really what we're excited about with 'Tron.' "

Wilhite said Disney currently is the industry leader in computer animation, just as, in Walt's day, the studio cornered the market in traditional animation. "What we're experimenting with now," he said, "is a combination of hand-drawn principal animated characters, set down in a computer-generated background. That gives us the best of both worlds: the warmth of hand-drawn animation, and the three-dimensional environments and complete freedom of camera moves of computer animation."

Meanwhile, the box-office jury still is out on "Tron." In Chicago, one exhibitor told me, word of mouth seems good on the film and it was holding strong during the traditionally slow mid-week period. Nationally, we'll see what happens after Wilhite's men pump up "audience awareness" in smaller markets.

And what does Theodore James Jr. think about "Tron" and Disney's prospects, now that the movie has opened?

I called James' office at Montgomery Securities on Tuesday, but was unable to get through to him. The same man who eagerly rushed his review into print after advising investors to sell Disney would now, according to his secretary, "have absolutely no comment on 'Tron' or Disney."

Thanks a lot, Ted. I just wanted to ask you, one movie critic to another, what you thought about that scene where Master Control is zapped by the electronic Frisbee?

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