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'Kong' Is King, but of a Realm in Decline

Though hopes were as high as the Empire State Building, the film's first weekend fell rather flat.

December 19, 2005|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Hollywood has been betting for months that when "King Kong" hit theaters, the action epic would help reverse a nearly yearlong slide in movie admissions. Well, the rampaging 50-foot-tall ape finally has arrived, but like so many other recent movies, "King Kong" is not yet attracting stampedes of moviegoers.

Although writer-director Peter Jackson's remake of the 1933 classic did sell an estimated $66.2 million in tickets in its first five days, the film's opening receipts stood well below industry projections. Rival studios and show business prognosticators had said (and even hoped) that Universal Pictures' "King Kong" might gross as much as $100 million in its first five days of release.

Total domestic sales for the three-hour-plus movie, which got a jump on the weekend with early Wednesday morning screenings, were almost exactly the take that "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" generated the previous weekend, in two fewer days.

Although "King Kong" was No. 1 at the box office, the unexpectedly sluggish opening adds to growing fears that U.S. audiences might be forsaking the multiplex: For the first time in more than 40 years, Hollywood by year's end will have recorded declining attendance for three consecutive years.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 21, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 89 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie studios -- A graphic with an article in Monday's Section A about the box office results for "King Kong" mislabeled the studios that this year released some of the films with the most disappointing sales. The graphic said Fox had released "Elizabethtown," Paramount "Lords of Dogtown," New Line "The Brothers Grimm" and Warner Bros. "In Her Shoes" and "Stealth." In fact, Paramount released "Elizabethtown," Sony released "Stealth" and "Lords of Dogtown," Miramax released "The Brothers Grimm" and Fox released "In Her Shoes." The corrected chart is at right.

In 2005, North American attendance will total about 1.4 billion tickets, down more than 6% from the previous year, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Total box-office receipts should be about $8.7 billion, down from $9.2 billion in 2004, according to Nielsen EDI Inc.

"This was one of the films that was supposed to help get the business back to last year's levels, and clearly it didn't happen," Richard Greenfield, a media analyst with Fulcrum Global Partners, said of "King Kong." "The bottom line is that this is a surprisingly low figure."

Universal conceded that the film's first day was unimpressive but said "King Kong" is nevertheless on track to be a blockbuster.

"The one thing we can say is that a geek fan base did not storm the gates," said Marc Shmuger, Universal's vice chairman. He said returns earlier in the week were hurt by the film's long running time and cited faulty estimates. "I don't think anyone who was prognosticating had the right model," he said. Universal also believes that as more school-age children begin their winter holidays, they will start snapping up "King Kong" tickets.

"I'm incredibly encouraged by where we are right now," Shmuger said Sunday, adding that positive word of mouth should make "King Kong" a top audience choice for weeks to come. "I couldn't be more bullish." Universal also stressed that in overseas theaters, "King Kong" grossed $80 million.

It will have to gross much more to turn a profit, given its $220 million price tag and tens of millions more spent on marketing. (Studios keep only about half of a film's theatrical receipts, and a hefty slice of the "King Kong" proceeds will then go to Jackson and his team.)

"King Kong" carries all the possible elements for a sure-fire blockbuster: an Oscar-winning filmmaker coming off three "Lord of the Rings" smashes, breathtaking special effects for teens, a heart-wrenching story for adults, consistent rave reviews, and hardly any competition in theaters.

That's why, when "King Kong's" Wednesday ticket sales were so comparatively weak, executives across Hollywood spent hours on the telephone obsessing over the numbers. It's something they've become accustomed to this year as one anticipated hit after another has received a lukewarm response from moviegoers.

Audiences turned up their noses at many of the industry's attempts to cater to their whims. For adults, there were offerings by A-list directors such as Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" and Ron Howard's "Cinderella Man," but those dramas struggled to connect. In an attempt to capture younger viewers, there were "The Lords of Dogtown" and "XXX: State of the Union," which both fell short. "In Her Shoes," considered to be a likely hit with women, wasn't.

The industry's soul-searching grew so profound that when summer fare such as "Stealth" and "The Island" did belly-flops at the box office, executives started asking themselves whether the action movie was dead.

Although no one can say for sure how the movies themselves may be contributing to declining admissions, other culprits include video games, cheap DVDs, too many commercials in movie theaters and the high cost of going out.

Despite all the usual lamentations that audiences crave new and original stories, many of the most popular movies of the year were remakes, sequels or adaptations ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith," "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and "The Longest Yard").

Which explains, in part, why expectations were so robust for "King Kong."

Audience surveys conducted by research firms such as National Research Group and internal studio projections suggested "King Kong" would open to packed houses.

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