REPORTERS Jonathan Bing and Dade Hayes had a nifty idea: Pick a summer weekend and watch the movies selected for release by the major studios duke it out. Looking for "a bruising one with a clear winner and loser," they selected July 4, 2003, the long weekend opener for "Terminator 3," "Legally Blonde 2" and "Sinbad," and tracked all the hard-working directors, producers, marketing execs and stars -- all, that is, but the ones hiding a flop, who refused to participate.
The resulting book, "Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became a National Obsession," captures the dizzying frenzy of releasing a major motion picture, from the creation of marketing materials through the terrifying preview process to the opening weekend. We see the creators and studio executives of "LB2" try to position their "product" and then, after the first preview, question why they picked that marketing scheme in the first place and choose another. We see dubious fans at a comic-book convention hiss the "T3" movie trailer's debut and "T3" team members arguing and nail-biting as they glean the first reactions to the film they have nurtured all year, and then watch how it fares through the summer.
This book is unique for its emphasis on the less glamorous post-production phase of the game. We see our soon-to-be Governator pushing his product to theater owners at the film-marketing extravaganza ShoWest, vouching for the credibility of the third installment of the "Terminator" series to die-hard Arnold Schwarzenegger fans at Comix conventions and realizing how critical it is to his (hard as it now is to believe) then-flagging career. "LB2" star and producer Reese Witherspoon appears at trailer meetings, previews and in broom closet meetings at the back of movie theaters.
The writing by Hayes and Bing, both reporters for Variety, soars way over the trade-periodical bar, though it occasionally drifts into technical insider lingo that can feel like an eternal afternoon at an airless marketing seminar. They also have unearthed a remarkable amount of insight into the history of the modern blockbuster that will illuminate even the most jaded studio maven. The book is a must for the novice director or studio exec and is likely to fascinate even the most jaded Hollywood junkie.
For those who believe that the wide-release formula sprang full-blown from the "Jaws" of Steven Spielberg, the authors write that the pernicious "wide opening" of their title, in which a movie opens in more than 2,000 theaters in one weekend, was first discussed in a Variety column circa 1954.
The chronicled weekend belonged to three movies, two of which were sequels. And both looked fail-safe 10 months earlier when their release dates were scheduled. It turns out that all the sequels of mid-summer 2003 were on a collision course with audience exhaustion for sequels. But these three movies in particular also were on a collision course with a lot of family barbecues. "It's a myth that July Fourth is a powerful weekend" for movies, says "Terminator 3" director Jonathan Mostow. "The decision to go on that date was about ego.... If I knew then what I know now I would have pushed for another date." Hindsight is the gift studio chiefs never get for Christmas or any other release date.
The chapter on the weekend's box office grosses is priceless. With unprecedented access, the authors reveal the spin, the pain, the exultation at the first day's numbers, the despair as the second-day numbers collapse. For the creators of the films, the hype, the expectations and the disappointments are at times unbearable. It is all the more astonishing to realize that this is a weekly event for marketing execs. "It is not for the faint of heart," Peter Adee of MGM says upon the arrival of initial grosses of "Legally Blonde 2."
The book is chock-full of delicious gems: There is the fight over "LB2's" teaser trailer -- more bitter than any argument over the cut of the film -- when the marketing team discovers that their target audience rejected the Washington, D.C., premise of the movie. Or this quote from director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld: "I get from everyone that I'm supposed to feel burned by MGM .... I just feel like they're a studio and I never expected them to not act like a business."
By far the most insightful chapter, full of original ideas and value judgments about the influence of the creeping, sweeping effect of the blockbuster on world culture, is the one on "The Matrix Revolutions." The authors argue that the biggest global release of all time was less "a forceful salvo in the war against copyright theft" than a preemptive blow against negative word of mouth. Hayes and Bing are at their most controversial and eloquent when they call the second Matrix sequel "an inside joke -- a commercial blockbuster that was also an indictment of the blockbuster culture that sustained it."
Given that insight, the book's parting sentiment is disappointing. They leave us with this final thought from the late movie mogul Joseph E. Levine: "You can fool all the people all the time if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough."
If this were true, studio heads wouldn't be running around like headless chickens nursing ulcers. If this were true, the flops of the summer of 2003 wouldn't have happened. No, the audience is too smart, all the money thrown at them not withstanding. And "Open Wide" is too smart a book for such a facile conclusion. *