The Nov. 11 test screening of "Alvin and the Chipmunks" was halfway over when the power in Westlake Village cut out. The emergency lights inside the Mann Village 8 came on, but most of preview guests still wouldn't leave their seats.
After some 20 minutes in the near dark, 20th Century Fox canceled the screening -- the last one possible before "Alvin" was locked and no more editing changes would be possible. As soon as the theater emptied, though, the power was restored, and the Fox executives were nearly trampled when the majority of the audience rushed back in.
"That was when I sort of said, 'I think this movie is going to catch,' " said Elizabeth Gabler, whose Fox 2000 division joined with 20th Century Fox Animation to supervise production.
The Christmas movie season has been distinguished by two prominent blockbusters: "I Am Legend" and the sequel "National Treasure: Book of Secrets." But the once lowly regarded and poorly reviewed family film "Alvin" might end up grossing as much as either, and thanks to "Alvin's" modest $55-million budget, the singing sciurids could be far more profitable too.
"Alvin" also is doing well because some parents consider "National Treasure" too grown-up for young kids, even though the films have the same ratings. The Latino turnout for "Alvin" has been remarkably strong, accounting for as much as 30% of the film's admissions.
Most successful movies, especially wide-release titles, open strongly and then fall precipitously. But last weekend, "Alvin's" ticket sales actually rose 3% from the previous weekend. The film has grossed more than $154 million to date.
A recent "Alvin" matinee at the Pacific Paseo Stadium 14 in Pasadena illustrated the film's broad appeal: Up against the similarly PG-rated "National Treasure," "Enchanted" and "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep," "Alvin" still nearly filled the house. In addition to moms with young children, the auditorium was packed with multigenerational groupings: grandparents with their children with their children.
When Fox Animation's Chris Meledandri approached Chipmunks rights holders Janice Karman and Ross Bagdasarian Jr. four years ago about a possible movie, his pitch was this: Alvin, Simon and Theodore could be reimagined in a film by combining live action and animation. Equally important, a well-executed production could appeal not only to children but also to people who grew up on the 1960s and 1980s animated TV series and still put up holiday decorations listening to "Christmas With the Chipmunks: Vol. 1."
To make sure "Alvin" had as fresh a voice as possible, Fox hired "Simpsons" screenwriter Jon Vitti to pen its script and cast "My Name Is Earl's" Jason Lee and "Dodgeball's" Justin Long in starring roles.
Rothman had singled out a December release date, as there was little else competing for the family audience. But once the film premiered -- grossing $44.3 million its first weekend -- the returns surprised even Fox. Gabler says two things are driving the turnout: kids who want to see the movie again and again, and parents who are desperate for some comforting nostalgia.
"Every headline these days is so hard and sad," says Gabler. "Alvin reminds you of a simpler time in your life."
"Alvin's" popularity will likely be hurt in coming days when children start returning to school. But so far the movie has not been affected by reviews, many of which have been caustic.
"The reviews of 'Mrs. Doubtfire' were horrible too," says Gabler of a Fox film that grossed more than $219 million. As for "Alvin," "I look at the numbers every day, and we just laugh." All the way to the bank.