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Fox scales back `Borat' movie's opening

The comedy will first be shown in 800 theaters, down from 2,000, amid a lack of awareness.

October 25, 2006|Josh Friedman and Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writers

Moviefilm "Borat" will not be in so much US and A theaters when it opening third of November.

Twentieth Century Fox on Tuesday confirmed that it had slashed by more than half the number of locations where it hoped to debut the mock documentary about a boorish Kazakh TV journalist. On assignment in America, the fictional Borat offends virtually everyone he meets while mangling the English language.

Surveys showed that moviegoers were largely unaware of "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," despite well-publicized stunts by its star, Sacha Baron Cohen. His hype endeavors included drawing a crowd of journalists to the White House gates where the British comedian, in character as Borat Sagdiyev, asked to deliver a screening invitation to "Premier George Walter Bush."

"Our research showed it was soft in awareness," said Bruce Snyder, Fox's distribution chief.

Industry analysts could not recall a studio trimming the number of locations so sharply less than two weeks before a film's debut.

Fox had hoped to open "Borat" in more than 2,000 theaters. Instead, the film will start in about 800 locations, then expand to 2,200 the following weekend when Fox hopes the movie will have gained traction. "The movie plays like a concert," Snyder said. "It's great in a theater."

A tracking survey Monday by National Research Group showed that 27% of respondents were aware of "Borat," well behind two competitors opening the same weekend. Of those surveyed, 81% were aware of Walt Disney Co.'s "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause" and 50% were aware of DreamWorks Animation SKG's "Flushed Away," to be released through Paramount Pictures.

But tracking can be unreliable, film executives said, especially with an unconventional film such as "Borat."

Cohen, a Cambridge University-educated comic, featured the character Borat on his "Da Ali G Show" on Home Box Office. The film version, which is rated R, includes considerable raunch and such outlandish segments as Borat singing the national anthem at a rodeo as he pursues his goal of marrying former "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson.

Fox has had trouble selling "Borat" outside of the big cities and college towns where Cohen's brand of politically incorrect satire has gathered legions of fans.

Rivals say Fox may have overestimated the breadth of the movie's appeal.

The movie also could be suffering from what one executive called "Snakes on a Plane" syndrome -- buzz that peaks too early. After a year of Internet hype, "Snakes" had a disappointing opening this summer for New Line Cinema. Still, that movie was being hyped sight unseen, whereas critics have raved about "Borat."

"It's gotten a lot of publicity, but publicity does not necessarily equal an audience," said analyst Brandon Gray, head of BoxOfficeMojo.com.

The "Borat" buzz started building during the Cannes Film Festival in May, when Cohen posed in character on the beach in a neon green sling bikini alongside two models.

Cohen also played a French stock car racer in this summer's hit "Talladega Nights."

Since Cannes, Cohen has stayed relentlessly in character. Even the Kazakhstan government has unwittingly pitched in, buying newspaper ads defending the country's honor and threatening to sue the film's creators for portraying it as backward.

Fox hopes the change in its release strategy will eventually work to its advantage.

For one thing, the studio won't face the pressure of the box-office expectations game. Because of its smaller theater count, analysts won't expect "Borat" to open with a higher gross than "The Santa Clause 3" or "Flushed Away." Films are often tagged a failure if they don't finish in the top two slots.

Fox is hedging its bets by opening where the movie is expected to draw its biggest crowds and generate a high average gross per theater. That could help the studio persuade additional theaters throughout the country to show the film. Later in November, however, "Borat" faces competition from the James Bond thriller "Casino Royale" and the animated "Happy Feet."

Despite the slimmed-down release, "Borat" is almost certain to make money for Fox given that its production budget was a modest $17 million.

Edward Douglas, who writes a box-office column for ComingSoon.net, said he expected "Borat" to open at $8 million to $9 million and ultimately gross $50 million.

josh.friedman@latimes.com

lorenza.munoz@latimes.com

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