Big Little Movie

At first glance it would appear to be a movie with little hope of hitting it big. Filmed last fall on a low budget (by Hollywood standards anyway) of $14 million in and around Chicago and South Bend, with a number of Chicago actors in the cast, the picture deals among other things with the subject of college football–usually of interest to a limited audience. Furthermore, it has no big-name stars, no big-shot director, and no gimmicky concept. Worst of all, the movie is a simple, unabashedly sentimental tale about an underdog triumphing over adversity, the kind almost guaranteed to rub jaded movie critics the wrong way. Certainly no one at TriStar Pictures, which is releasing the picture, is counting on the critics. “We’re expecting to get slammed from the real cynics among them,” says one TriStar marketing executive.

If the studio seems unusually confident nonetheless about the potential of Rudy, which will be screened tonight at the Chicago International Film Festival, then released later in the month, it’s due to the marketing tool known as previews. TriStar has rallied behind Rudy (and upped the film’s ad budget by a third) in large part because of the strong positive response from audiences who have seen the movie during an extraordinarily high number of advance screenings. “They’ve done their homework, and they know they have a moneymaker,” says Ron Ver Kuilen, an Illinois Film Office staffer who scouted Illinois locations for the filmmakers.

Whereas a typical Hollywood release is screened for preview audiences somewhere between 50 and 100 times before its premiere, over the past couple of months Rudy has been screened more than 500 times. Such screenings contribute to studios’ decisions about everything from how to market a film to how to reshoot the ending. They can also jump start a word-of-mouth buzz. And “this is going to be a word-of-mouth movie,” says TriStar promotion exec Ed Russell. TriStar had terrific results using the same tactics with the summer hit Sleepless in Seattle, which was screened about 300 times before it opened.

Rudy is a true story based on the life of Rudy Ruettiger, the son of a Joliet steelworker, who harbored a childhood dream of attending Notre Dame and playing on its football team. The movie, directed by David Anspaugh (Hoosiers), recounts how the boy overcame constant discouragement from his blue-collar family and considerable skepticism from Notre Dame football coaches, not to mention a learning disability, to realize his dream. Chicago-based actors who worked on the film say they aren’t surprised at the attention from TriStar. “I had a good feeling about it,” says Mary Ann Thebus, who plays Rudy’s mother. “It’s a small movie that’s well done.”

Broadway Bound

When playwright Jonathan Tolins’s Twilight of the Golds premieres on Broadway at the Booth Theatre October 21, it will mark the Broadway debut as well of local producer Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals. They have been a presence in Chicago for a number of years with commercial productions such as Lend Me a Tenor, Six Degrees of Separation, Oleanna, now at the Wellington Theatre, and Lost in Yonkers, now playing at the Royal George. For this play Fox and Leavitt teamed up with another Chicago-based producer, Libby Adler Mages, who produced Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? on Broadway, and three other partners: Charles H. Duggan, Ted Snowdon, and Drew Dennett. What makes this partnership unusual is that Leavitt, Fox, and Mages were asked to participate in the New York production last month, just a few weeks before previews were to begin. The timing suggests to some savvy Broadway veterans that lead producer Duggan was having trouble raising the $1 million capitalization needed for the Broadway production. But apparently neither Leavitt and Fox nor Mages balked at the notion of raising approximately a quarter of the needed capital in a hurry. Leavitt says he liked the play when he saw an early version of it in California. Mages, who has never seen the show but read the script, says she signed on when friends who saw the show during a pre-Broadway tryout called out of the blue to rave about it. Though profitable runs of nonmusical productions on Broadway are something of a rarity nowadays, Leavitt and Mages seem to believe audiences will go for this show. One thing you can already say for the play is that it’s timely: it portrays the family conflict that is sparked when a mother-to-be discovers that her unborn child is biologically destined to be homosexual. Meanwhile, on another front, Leavitt and Fox have signed a five-year lease to operate the 465-seat Briar Street Theatre. They currently lease the Royal George, Apollo, and Wellington theaters.


Brace yourselves. The advisory committee of community leaders, arts executives, and foundation officials trying to determine where to build a new midsize theater for the city’s homeless dance and music organizations looks about ready to reverse course once again. Sources say the committee met last week and decided it would not pursue further discussions with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra about building a midsize theater inside the proposed Orchestra Hall expansion. The committee had switched its affections to the Orchestra Hall site suddenly last spring after initially stating a preference for building at Navy Pier. Now it appears the committee may be focusing its attention on Cityfront Center, the site unanimously preferred all along by the dance and music companies intending to use the facility. Cityfront Center was rejected originally because it would be significantly more expensive to build there than at Navy Pier. A source connected with Cityfront Center said the advisory committee had made inquiries last week about whether the site still would be available and were told it would be. Stay tuned.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.