“The Sword and the Sorcerer,” a brash amalgam of the most commercial elements of movies as different as “Excalibur” and “Alien,” ranks with “Porky’s” as the year’s biggest surprise box-office success. Shot in six weeks (with 10 extra days for pick-ups) on a $4.5 million budget, this medieval duel-and-magic show grossed over $35 million by midsummer without even opening in New York — and without major studio distribution. To beat “Conan the Barbarian” into theaters, producers Brandon and Marianne Chase decided to get the film out through Group I, their own small distribution firm. Interviewed shortly before the movie opened in New York, Brandon Chase predicted a worldwide gross of $60 million.
How did you get involved with The Sword and the Sorcerer?
Two years before Excalibur, three young guys [director-cowriter Albert Pyun and coproducer-cowriters Tom Karnowski and John Stuckmeyer] came into this office with a fantasy. I was not excited for two reasons: their own moviemaking naiveté and my misgivings about the genre. Excalibur changed my mind. That movie showed there was an untapped audience for the sword-and-sorcery genre. As soon as I saw Excalibur‘s opening grosses. I said, “Let’s go.” There’s always a danger that when something new catches on, everyone will rush to cash in But the logistics of making a movie like this were too complicated for that to happen, and we were ready, to start right away.
How were you able to make a film full of special effects, with a large cast and almost a hundred stunt men, for so little money?
In pre-production on a movie of this scale, a big studio has up to 150 people. We had 30. The studios have created an overhead charge of 25 percent on every dollar because of their facilities and bureaucracies.
Pre-production was crucial for getting this film made for a price. Our art director, George Costello, didn’t just do line drawings, he did dimensional drawings, so that we could work out camera moves weeks in advance.
When major studios release a film region by region, it seems to be the kiss of death. But you were a hit before you reached New York or L.A.
The financial pressures on the big studios are such that they feel they have to open their movies wide and spend millions on prints and promotion. The studios lose the luxury of a slow playoff. If an ad campaign isn’t right or a movie isn’t making it everyone knows immediately, and often there’s no second chance. In our experiences over the years, we’ve found that individual cities vary greatly in their responses to movies. And the smart theater chains know this. We had 80 successful sneaks of The Sword and the Sorcerer all across the country, but Pacific Theaters in L.A. wouldn’t book us until we played an engagement at one of their theaters in Hawaii. We did very well — and that told them we’d do well in L.A.
Why did you wait until August 6th to open in New York?
I think it’s perfect timing. All the early hits have been dying off except E.T., and a lot of the July releases aren’t going to cut it. We’re able to get great theaters, which is very important for an independent movie. We’ve got our heaviest promotion worked up, and I think we’ll see our best returns — though we haven’t hit a soft city yet.