Willow: how the studio overplayed its hand trying to sell the film into cinemas

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Even George Lucas’ name couldn’t persuade cinema owners of the 1980s to give Willow the run its parent studio wanted.

If you fancy an insight into the perils of booking movies into cinemas back in the 1980s, then let’s take a moment to consider Ron Howard’s 1988 family fantasy adventure, Willow.

The film was heading to cinemas with some pedigree behind it. Back in 1988, Ron Howard hadn’t won his Oscar – that’d follow over a decade later – but he’d still struck box office gold with both Splash and Cocoon. Meanwhile, Willow was executive produced by George Lucas. Sure, Lucas had struck out a year or two earlier with the infamous Howard The Duck (here’s the Film Stories podcast episode where we talk about that). But this was still the man behind Star Wars, and one of the creative forces behind the Indiana Jones movies.

The studio behind the film, MGM, figured that those names thus bought it some cachet with cinema chains. That whilst Willow didn’t have movie stars in it – Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley and Warwick Davis led the ensemble, none at that stage with the box office clout to open a film – it did have profile by nature of who was behind it.

MGM confidently scheduled the film for a high season Memorial Day holiday release in the US, and was hoping for a long run. This was an era, of course, when a film could run in cinemas for months if the demand was there, without the threat of a major blockbuster the following weekend gobbling up screen space. Likewise, there was space for films to grow their audiences over a number of weeks.

That’s what MGM wanted, but it overplayed its hand.

In negotiations with cinema owners, MGM asked the owners of cinemas to – without even having seen the film – commit to a full 16 week run for the movie. To put this in some degree of context, in the later 80s, a chain might agree to 12 weeks for something it felt was a certain hit – Premiere magazine argued back in 1988 that Crocodile Dundee II fit this bill – but very rarely anything more than that. Especially when the film was an unknown quantity.

As a representation for AMC told Premiere back in its June 1988 issue, “we look at what we know of Willow right now – who the director is and the storyline – then we try to find a picture that could be similar”. The two films that were modelled against Willow were thus Howard’s earlier sci-fi hit, Cocoon, and the far less successful Excalibur.

Numbers were weighed up, estimates were put together… and not a single chain on the US circuit would agree to the deal that MGM had put on the table. As such, the whole sale process for the movie had to start from scratch, with the studio holding fewer cards than it had first anticipated.

As it turned out, the film would get a showy premiere at May 1988’s Cannes Film Festival, and would open at number one in the US with an impressive $8.3m opening weekend. Lucas, however, had wondered if Willow could do E.T.-style numbers, but a mixture of up-and-down reviews and tough competition led to the movie settling at around $57m on its initial US box office run. Far from shabby, but not the flat-out hit that had been expecting.

As it happened in this case, the cinema chains – commercially at least – chose wisely…

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