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The Nation

With the Right Spin, Any Film Can Be No. 1

July 03, 2006|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

It wasn't enough that the comedy "Scary Movie 4" premiered to a healthy $41 million at the box office in April, setting an Easter weekend record.

Distributor Weinstein Co. further boasted that it was the biggest movie opening in the company's history -- all six months of it.

After 20th Century Fox opened its horror remake "The Omen" on the Satanic-sounding "6/6/06" date, the studio dashed off a news release proclaiming the $12.6-million take was "The Biggest Tuesday Opening in Motion Picture History."

Then again, studios almost never launch films on Tuesday because it's one of the lightest moviegoing days of the week.

When it comes to claiming bragging rights in Hollywood, no milestone is too obscure to exploit. Eager to find any marketing hook, studios each weekend put the box-office numbers through a Veg-O-Matic-style analysis, slicing and dicing figures to suit their needs. As a result, records are being set at, well, a record clip.

"It's all gone crazy," said Bob Weinstein, co-chairman of Weinstein Co. "Everybody is creating records, including us, to tout the fact that we're No. 1. The significance is not much, but we cop to being part of it."

Hollywood has long featured carnival barker-like promotion seeking to lure people into theaters. But the weekly drumbeat highlighting the thinnest of achievements has gotten so out of hand, said veteran movie distributor Tom Sherak, that he expects someone to soon claim: "The best opening without somebody in it who was born on a Tuesday morning."

Movie grosses are often subjected to mind-numbing analysis. Last week's premiere of "Superman Returns" was touted as the eighth-biggest Wednesday opening, but it slips to 11th if you exclude Tuesday night advance showings.

It's no longer enough to be among the weekend's top-grossing movies. With the TV, print, radio and online media obsessed with the weekly box-office derby, studios each Sunday scramble to come up with any statistics that set their films apart from the competitive pack, even if those boasts come with asterisks.

Universal Pictures noted that the $39.2 million grossed by its recent Jennifer Aniston-Vince Vaughn film "The Break-Up" was the highest three-day opening ever for a romantic comedy released in June.

The animated "Cars" won its opening weekend in early June with a strong $60.1 million but still fell shy of the $70-million estimates from some analysts. Nonetheless, Walt Disney Co. pointed to a batch of records, including the highest-grossing debuts of Paul Newman, Owen Wilson and Bonnie Hunt, who were voice actors in the movie.

"Those are a little dubious," said Brandon Gray, an analyst at the Box Office Mojo website. "First of all, they're not really in the movie."

Winning the weekend in any niche category can provide a marketing opportunity: DreamWorks Animation and Paramount Pictures advertised "Over the Hedge" as "America's No. 1 comedy" this summer even though it grossed half the revenue of drama "The Da Vinci Code."

"Highly competitive industry that this is, you look for any marks of achievement," said Robert Levin, former film marketing executive at Walt Disney, Sony Pictures Entertainment and MGM studios.

Today's claims are an outgrowth of the box-office obsession that took off in the early 1980s, when studios cultivated media coverage by calling reporters Sundays with estimated weekend results. With the release of blockbusters such as the original "Batman" in 1989, studios more aggressively promoted their weekend winners and started sifting through the numbers to find records they could flaunt.

At the time, the unofficial repository of box-office statistics was just a phone call away in the form of the late Art Murphy, the gruff, chain-smoking Variety reporter who pioneered coverage in the 1960s. If a studio believed that its film had broken a record of some sort, an executive often would quietly contact Murphy to confirm it before crowing publicly.

"If you were on his list of people he would talk to, he would tell you the answer," said Robert Friedman, a former executive at Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures.

Today's records, which studios verify with such box-office tracking firms as Nielsen EDI and Exhibitor Relations Co., can border on arcane.

Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" set a record for a documentary when it premiered in 2004 at $21.8 million.

But that's not all. It also broke the mark for a movie opening at fewer than 1,000 theaters, dethroning "Rocky III." And it had the highest-grossing opening among films that had won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or award, beating "Pulp Fiction."

For good measure, it notched the smallest year-to-date percentage drop in revenue from Saturday to Sunday -- excluding Memorial Day weekend and children's movies.

"These records are mind-blowing," a giddy Moore wrote on his website.

Although records enable a studio to put an exclamation point on a robust opening, stressing an obscure mark also can be a tip-off that the movie disappointed.

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