"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."
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.
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.