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Beauty vs. beast at the box office

January 18, 2008|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

Call it a box-office battle of the sexes.

Paramount Pictures' "Cloverfield," a monster movie described as "The Blair Witch Project" meets "Godzilla," and 20th Century Fox's "27 Dresses," a romantic comedy with Katherine Heigl, open today with dead aim on audiences as different as Mars and Venus.

Conventional wisdom has the cleverly marketed "Cloverfield," a $25-million budget flick from "Lost" producer J.J. Abrams, plundering box-office records like its on-screen monster wrecking Manhattan.

But because of a gender gap reminiscent of the Barack Obama-Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign clash, this weekend could end up with an unexpectedly tight fight for No. 1 between the monster movie and the so-called chick flick.

Hollywood executives and industry analysts expect "Cloverfield" to pull in $25 million to $45 million over the four-day holiday weekend, depending on how well the movie's online buzz translates into ticket sales.

"This is going to be the hardest movie of the year to forecast," said Rob Moore, Paramount's vice chairman.

The marketing campaign stoked excitement among movie geeks by concealing -- instead of revealing -- information about the plot, even keeping the title under wraps until recently. Working against the PG-13-rated "Cloverfield," however, are an unknown cast and one of Hollywood's historically slower holidays, Martin Luther King Day. Director Ridley Scott's war drama "Black Hawk Down" holds the holiday weekend record with a four-day domestic gross of $33.6 million in 2002.

Paramount turned the opening into an event for the eager young male "fanboy" crowd, along with female devotees of the suspense genre -- starting just after midnight Thursday with sold-out screenings at many theaters. But if word of mouth on the movie is tepid, business could quickly wane, creating the possibility of a winning weekend for "27 Dresses," which rival studio executives predict will pull in as much as $30 million.

The "Cloverfield" buzz began when the movie was announced not with a blurb in Hollywood trade papers but an unusual trailer that screened before last July's science-fiction blockbuster "Transformers" showing hand-held, home-video-style footage of New York getting jolted by a chaotic, mysterious attack.

The ad revealed little more than the release date, "1-18-08," and the producer's name, branding the project with a tease that got the frenzied online conversation started as bloggers around the world speculated about the upcoming movie.

Paramount kept the title and other details on the down-low for months, fueling online interest in the movie with "viral" videos reminiscent of the 1999 marketing phenomenon "Blair Witch."

Fox rescheduled "27 Dresses," also rated PG-13, from its original Jan. 11 release, enabling the studio to hold a second set of sneak previews to build word of mouth and to take advantage of the long holiday weekend.

Heigl, star of the TV drama "Grey's Anatomy," established her big-screen credentials by carrying last summer's raunchy comedy hit "Knocked Up."

In "27 Dresses," a $30-million production co-financed by Spyglass Entertainment, Heigl is a perpetual bridesmaid who carries a secret torch for her sister's fiance while repeatedly rebuffing a cynical journalist (is there any other kind?) played by James Marsden.

When the poster for "27 Dresses," showing its glamorous star in a wedding dress made up of the movie's credits, drew kudos, Fox brainstormed other ways to use the image, said Pamela Levine, the studio's co-president of marketing.

Fox has been selling the film as a sophisticated comedy, so it was no surprise that the poster's pitch began: "From the screenwriter of 'Devil Wears Prada,' " a nod to the 2006 comedy that grossed a surprising $326 million worldwide.

Marketers came up with the idea of hiring 27 live models -- as opposed to the usual cardboard cutouts -- to pose in replicas of the dress in multiplex lobbies during the first sneak preview screenings Dec. 27.

Moviegoers in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and elsewhere took to the idea, posing for pictures with the models as if they were Santa Claus.

"With so much going on during the holiday, you have to do something special to grab people's attention," Levine said.

"27 Dresses" could lose some of the female audience to "Mad Money," a crime comedy that marks the debut release from Overture Films, Liberty Media Corp.'s fledgling studio dedicated to modestly budgeted films. "Mad Money," starring Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes as unlikely thieves, skews older.

One male who won't be helping "Cloverfield" this weekend is Bruce Olson, president of Marcus Theatres Corp. Just as he did with Paramount's "Sweeney Todd" in December, Olson is refusing to show "Cloverfield" at any of the 49 theaters in the Midwestern chain because of a dispute over financial terms.

But with 3,411 theaters in the U.S. and Canada showing "Cloverfield" this weekend, Paramount's monster is unlikely to be affected.



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Weekend Forecast

The monster movie "Cloverfield" and the romantic comedy "27 Dresses" are expected to dominate the holiday weekend at the box office. Along with the movies listed below, contenders to make the top 10 include recent Golden Globe winners "There Will Be Blood" and "Sweeney Todd." These figures are Times predictions only. Studios will issue weekend estimates on Monday and final results on Tuesday.




4-day prediction

Proje Weeks (millions) cted total

(million s)

1 Cloverfield (Paramount) $33.0 $33.0 1


27 Dresses

31.0 31.0 1 (20th Century Fox)

3 The Bucket List (Warner 15.0 42.5 4 Bros.)

4 Juno (Fox Searchlight) 11.5 86.5 7

5 First Sunday (Sony) 11.0 32.0 2

6 Mad Money (Overture) 7.5 7.5 1

7 National Treasure: Book 7.0 197.0 5 of Secrets (Disney)


Alvin and the 6.5 196.0 6 Chipmunks

(20th Century Fox)

9 Atonement (Focus) 6.0 33.5 7

10 I Am Legend (Warner Bros.) 5.5 248.5 6 *--*


Source: Times research Los Angeles Times *--*

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