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WORD OF MOUTH

It'll be a fight for fifth

'Charlie Wilson's War,' 'Walk Hard' and 'P.S. I Love You' all face an uphill climb to find audiences.

December 20, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Nobody really likes the idea of holiday fruitcake -- that borderline gift that sits around for weeks until it becomes part of the petrified wood food group. But Hollywood loves the movie version of the same thing: the Christmas film that simply won't go away.

Almost all of the media attention (and much of the studios' marketing dollars) are focused on a movie's opening weekend, and often for good cause. Yet, for many films debuting over the next two weeks, the real measure of success -- meaning profitability -- cannot be calculated until after New Year's Day.

Some December movies don't need much time to prove their commercial worth. With an opening weekend of $77.2 million, Will Smith's "I Am Legend" could fall faster than Mitt Romney's poll numbers and still deliver a windfall to Warner Bros. Similarly, with a projected debut weekend of about $47 million, Nicolas Cage's "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" is likely to become an almost immediate Disney hit.

A number of other upcoming films, however, can't -- and won't -- open to those kind of numbers, and instead must attract strong reviews, good word of mouth and a loyal following from narrow demographic groups to slowly turn a profit.

Nowhere is that dynamic more visible than this coming weekend.

If the "National Treasure" sequel opens as strongly as predicted by various audience tracking firms (it is drawing remarkably broad support, with 47% of older women and 59% of younger men definitely interested in it), the PG-rated action-adventure story should easily claim the No. 1 spot. It will probably be followed by second-week holdovers "I Am Legend" in second and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" in third. With women younger than 25 showing robust curiosity in Johnny Depp's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," the musical adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical should open in fourth.

That means "Charlie Wilson's War," "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" and "P.S. I Love You" will all be fighting out for lowly fifth place, with none of the movies likely to take in more than $10 million from Friday to Sunday. And the competition intensifies on Christmas Day, when the hot sequel "Alien vs. Predator: Requiem," Denzel Washington's "The Great Debaters," Jack Nicholson's "The Bucket List" and the family film "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep" all join the fray.

The makers of "Charlie Wilson," "Walk Hard" and "P.S." can all take some consolation in historical precedent. Many mainstream movies commonly gross only three or four times the total of their opening weekend: They're here one month, and gone the next. Last summer's "Superman Returns," for example, opened to $52.5 million and grossed a total of $200 million.

But some holiday films, particularly those with strong reviews and favorable word-of-mouth, can produce much higher multiples.

Last December's "The Good Shepherd" debuted with almost $10 million its first weekend and ultimately grossed nearly $60 million total, a multiple of six. In 2004, "The Aviator" opened wide with $8.6 million and grossed $102.6 million total, an amazing multiple of nearly 12.

Of course, those films enjoyed consistently strong reviews, which does not appear to be the case with either "Charlie Wilson" or "P.S." And "Charlie Wilson" (don't even think about "P.S." or "Walk Hard") isn't bound to get anywhere near the Academy Award attention lavished on "The Aviator."

So that means all three of these films will have to find and retain a core audience. For "P.S.," that means people with no Y chromosome; for "Charlie Wilson," adults getting ready to cash in their 401(k)s; and for "Walk Hard," anyone who thinks clever movie spoofs are a kick.

Sometimes, though, a loyal following can come from unexpected places. Part of what turned "Alvin's" lowly regarded opening into a $44.3-million event was the huge turnout from Latino moviegoers, who can account for as much as 20% of a mainstream film's ticket sales. The highest-grossing theater in the nation for "Alvin" was the Edwards South Gate Stadium 20, located in an overwhelmingly Latino neighborhood.

With "Alvin" already in theaters for a week, Latino moviegoers still are exhibiting twice the interest in the singing chipmunk comedy than in the "National Treasure" sequel. Now "Charlie Wilson," "P.S." and "Walk Hard" need to find that kind of support wherever they can.

john.horn@latimes.com

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