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Spreading the word

The old `he says she says it's great' routine still sells films, but with a new-tech twist.

August 25, 2006|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

PRODUCER David T. Friendly started to believe "Little Miss Sunshine" might turn into a word-of-mouth hit when his college roommate's parents and a doctor friend both sent him e-mail congratulations. "It's a little unsettling when you get an e-mail from your dermatologist," Friendly says, "asking about your per-screen averages."

Unsettling, perhaps. And also the wave of the future.

Recommendations from friends and associates always have been a critical ingredient in building box-office momentum, just as negative word of mouth accelerates a middling movie's downfall. Yet the speed at which such assessments are transmitted has never been so fast, nor the effect -- as "Little Miss Sunshine" is dramatizing -- so profound.

Movie studios once felt confident they had at least two weekends to sell as many movie tickets as possible before toxic buzz would undermine their multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns. Hollywood executives now say that the proliferation of movie-related e-mail, Internet blogs and text messaging has reduced that window to mere hours, as the quick decline of last weekend's heavily promoted "Snakes on a Plane" proved

"With most movies, you try to steal as much gross as you can until word of mouth catches up with you, which can be instant," says John Lesher, the head of Paramount's specialty division, which has one of the year's strongest word-of-mouth performers in the global-warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."

The life cycle of a word-of-mouth movie depends on its ability to ride a wave of critical success into more and more theaters, the inverse of the typical big summer movie that comes out instantly in thousands of theaters and often vanishes in a couple of weeks. Unlike special-effects-laden star vehicles, word-of-mouth releases often cost a fraction of the typical summer movie and have much smaller marketing budgets. They consequently can have a huge return on investment, as opposed to Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible III," which was essentially a break-even movie.

"Little Miss Sunshine" began playing in seven theaters on July 26. The movie moved into wider national release last weekend and is now playing in 691 theaters, including some in such cities as San Antonio and Omaha. It already has eclipsed a raft of more heavily marketed summer movies that enjoyed few reviewer and audience recommendations.

The tale of an unconventional family racing across the Southwest to make a kiddie beauty pageant, "Little Miss Sunshine" has thus far grossed $13.4 million, earning the highest per-theater average among all of the weekend's Top 10 films. The road movie will more than double its release this weekend, moving into 1,400 locations.

Twenty years ago, the top box-office hits averaged taking in only 12% of their total theatrical returns on their opening weekends. So far this year, first-weekend sales make up nearly a third of total sales, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Although the percentage of total tickets sold in the first weekend is more modest for highbrow releases, there's no doubt sales for those films can accelerate faster than ever.

The wrong kind of word of mouth can be devastating. When Sony released "Monster House" earlier this summer, the animated movie collected some of the season's best reviews and opened to a respectable $22.2 million. But in its second weekend, the film slipped nearly 48%. Sony believes the sharp drop-off was largely attributable to parents' telling other parents that "Monster House" was too intense for small children. Thanks to that don't-dare-take-your-6-year-old advice, the film collapsed more than 40% the next three weekends, and was soon history.

"Instant communications technology has completely changed the role of word of mouth," says Nancy Utley, chief operating officer for "Little Miss Sunshine" distributor Fox Searchlight. "Word of mouth used to be confined to cities. Now, thanks to e-mail, it crosses continents. It's revolutionized what word of mouth means." Fox Searchlight certainly has helped magnify the film's profile with progressively ubiquitous ads and promotions featuring a bright yellow color scheme.

In a recent Los Angeles Times poll on the moviegoing habits of teens and young adults, 38% of those surveyed said they share their opinions about a movie during or right after the film or on the same day. That kind of immediate national consensus spelled a quick finish to a number of recent movies that were released without being shown to film reviewers, including "Zoom" and "Pulse."

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