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"Tomatoes' just keeps growing

When Fried Green Tomatoes opened to mixed reviews in the last week of 1991, the film seemed destined to be lost amid the higher profile movies also debuting that week _ Barbra Streisand's The Prince of Tides, Oliver Stone's JFK, and Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon, not to mention such ongoing hits as Hook, Beauty and the Beast and Father of the Bride.

But since its opening on only five screens nationally, interest in Fried Green Tomatoes has ignited.

"There is a strong word-of-mouth on this movie," said John Krier, the owner of Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., a company that tracks box-office data. "When they like it in the smaller towns, that's a sure sign it's going to be a success."

For seven weeks, the film's distributor, Universal Pictures, has systematically expanded the number of theaters where Fried Green Tomatoes is showing, to the current 1,229 screens. That is not the typical approach in a business where hit movies, such as The Hand that Rocks the Cradle or Medicine Man, this past weekend's box-office leader, typically open "wide," in more than a thousand theaters.

In the weekend just ended, Fried Green Tomatoes sold an estimated $6.2-million worth of tickets, enough business to keep it fourth in the nation, down from second a week ago. But its drop in business was minimal _ estimated by sources at under 10 percent _ compared to the drop-off of 20 percent or better among other continuing films.

The box-office gross of $25.3-million to date is not bad for a film that cost $11-million to produce, which is low by major studio standards. With word-of-mouth still ripe, and potential Oscar nominations in the wings, some feel this batch of tomatoes has only begun to start sizzling at the box office.

"The whole thing is such a turnaround from last September," recalled the film's director, Jon Avnet, who made his feature film directing debut with Tomatoes. September was the month when several newspapers published lists of what movies were coming out for Christmas.

"I would look down those lists and see the other titles, and I would think: It's such a long shot, how is anyone going to even know about it?"

One reason suggested by some in the industry for the popularity of Fried Green Tomatoes is a bigger-than-expected market for "women's" films.

"At least half the movies in the current Top 10 are those that hold a special appeal to women," noted one theater chain executive. And among video rentals, the arrival in video stores of Thelma & Louise, a film about female rebellion against men, knocked the macho action picture Terminator 2: Judgment Day out of first place.

"This story is about old-fashioned friendships that are less cosmopolitan and more caring than we know today," Avnet added. "That may be at the core of what makes this such a strong experience."

Fried Green Tomatoes is set in the South of the present and of 50 years ago. In the present, Evelyn Couch (Bates) is a frustrated, overweight housewife, whose husband ignores her. Her only outlet is a rewarding friendship that develops with Ninny Threadgoode (Tandy), who lives in a Birmingham, Ala., nursing home. The older woman begins telling her tales of her younger days in the town of Whistle Stop, Ala.

The screenplay, by Fannie Flagg and Avnet, is based on Flagg's novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

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