Universal Pictures' $85-million production "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" enters the summer box-office fray today with a marketing assist from an unlikely source: James Lipton.
In a bit of NBC Universal corporate cross-hype, the deferential host of Bravo's talk show "Inside the Actors Studio" highlights the lighter side of Hellboy, probing the horned, red-skinned ruffian (played by Ron Perlman) as if he were a method actor battling inner demons instead of real ones.
The promo is an effort to soften the image of the gun-toting hero from hell -- a campaign that could help the sequel to 2004's "Hellboy" compete with another superhero flick, Will Smith's "Hancock," from Sony Pictures, for No. 1 with about $30 million in weekend ticket sales.
"Our single biggest challenge was getting people to accept the accessibility of the Hellboy character," said Adam Fogelson, Universal's marketing president.
Warner Bros.' adventure "Journey to the Center of the Earth," the widest release yet in digital 3-D despite Hollywood's struggle to roll out the format more quickly, could open to $15 million or more, based on consumer tracking. It might vie with another family film, Disney-Pixar's holdover hit "Wall-E," for No. 3.
But today's other major release, 20th Century Fox's science-fiction comedy "Meet Dave," starring Eddie Murphy, seems to be suffering from TCR, or Total Concept Rejection, from the moviegoing public -- the same affliction that befell "Speed Racer" and "The Love Guru." The star vehicle looks headed for a $10-million opening, or worse.
Lipton, whom many know as a Will Ferrell parody target from "Saturday Night Live," said he didn't mind poking fun at his image. Indeed, Universal insiders said one reason they enlisted Lipton in the cross-promotion was that they liked his Geico commercial in which he apes his self-serious, softball interview technique.
"I actually have several personas," he said. "There is the rather ordinary and dull person you're talking to, and then there is the Jim Lipton that Will Ferrell created. I gave them something in-between."
At one point during the "Hellboy II" promo shoot, he mock-scolded the director: "I think I would know how to say that line because . . . I'm me."
The first "Hellboy," made by Revolution Studios and distributed by Sony, opened to $23.2 million en route to a solid, if unspectacular, $99.3 million worldwide, then became a hot-selling DVD. Director Guillermo Del Toro has since exploded in popularity thanks to his stylish, haunting 2006 fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth."
But Universal, which acquired the "Hellboy" sequel rights in 2006, knew the harsh-sounding property would be a tough sell beyond its young, male-skewing fan base.
"He looks like he could be the bad guy in a horror film, but the truth is he's an incredibly lovable, heroic and funny good guy," Fogelson said.
The tag line on the movie's poster sets the cheeky tone: "Believe it or not, he's the good guy."
In consumer tracking polls, awareness and interest totals for PG-13-rated "Hellboy II" are similar to those for films that have opened at $30 million to $35 million. That puts it neck-and-neck with "Hancock" if that picture, which opened last weekend at $62.6 million, has a typical 50% drop.
Good buzz might give "Hellboy II" an edge: Eighty-seven percent of reviews were positive as of Thursday, according to RottenTomatoes.com, and IMDB.com users rated it 8.5 out of 10. Even if "Hancock" slips to No. 2 domestically, it is selling well overseas and should top $300 million in worldwide grosses this weekend.
"Journey to the Center of the Earth," a $60-million, PG-rated production that Warner inherited when it absorbed corporate sibling New Line Cinema, opens at 2,811 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, including 854 showing the movie in RealD's digital 3-D format.
New Line, which partnered with Walden Media on the project, had titled it "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D," hoping that enough theaters would be equipped to screen the picture exclusively in the eye-popping format -- at eye-popping ticket prices, of course.
The movie, starring Brendan Fraser and adapted from the classic Jules Verne novel, was retitled when it became clear that the achingly slow 3-D rollout meant it would have to be shown in 2-D as well to saturate the market.
Billed as the first fictional, live-action feature shot entirely in digital 3-D, "Journey" will still provide a box-office test. Recent 3-D features have all been animated or concert movies, but directors including James Cameron are working on a variety of live-action projects in the format.
"Meet Dave," produced for $60 million, features Murphy in multiple roles, as usual, but anemic tracking makes it a long shot to approach the success of 2007's "Norbit," which launched to $34.2 million on the way to a global $159.3 million.
In this one, Murphy plays a spaceship in human form inhabited by a team of minuscule aliens, including himself. Hence the tag line "Eddie Murphy in Eddie Murphy."