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AT THE MOVIES : WORD OF MOUTH

Time is 'X' factor

Has the TV series been off the air too long for its big-screen comeback to pay off?

July 24, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer
  • Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny star in "The X-Files: I Want to Believe."
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny star in "The X-Files: I Want to… (Diyah Pera / 20th Century…)

Strong BOX-OFFICE sales proved "Sex and the City" still meant something to millions of fans of the television series. Twentieth Century Fox is hoping the same is true for the fanatical followers of "The X-Files."

The popular TV series, which starred Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny as FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, who investigated paranormal activities, ended in 2002. After it went off the air, creator Chris Carter climbed mountains, learned to fly airplanes and even sued show distributor Fox over profit from the show.

The lawsuit was later settled, and Carter signed on to co-write and direct a new film version. The key question is now: Has "The X-Files" been away so long that it's starting to be forgotten, or has the gap created so much pent-up demand that the movie could emerge as a late-summer sleeper?

May's "Sex and the City" movie arrived four years after the series went off cable television's HBO. Even though the film's core audience was narrowly limited to women in their 30s and 40s, so many of them wanted to see the latest shopping and romantic exploits of "Sex and the City's" four female leads that the film opened to a strong $56.8 million and eventually grossed nearly $150 million total in domestic theaters.

Fox isn't assuming that "The X-Files: I Want to Believe," as the new movie is known, will do comparable business, and has had to temper its expectations for the film because of the remarkable and sustained performance of "The Dark Knight."

The Batman sequel not only set box-office records when it opened last weekend but also has sold boatloads of tickets on weeknights, setting a nonholiday record on Monday (with $24.5 million) and a Tuesday mark as well (with sales of $20.9 million). "The Dark Knight" passed the $200-million mark Tuesday, its fifth day of release, the fastest film ever to eclipse that milestone. (The previous record-holder, 2006's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," crossed $200 million in its eighth day in theaters.)

"The X-Files" also must fend off "Mamma Mia!," which opened above expectations a week ago and is drawing a steady stream of older women, part of "The X-Files' " central audience. "Step Brothers," a new R-rated comedy starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, is likely to attract older teen and young adult males.

Produced for close to $30 million, the new "X-Files" movie could open to $20 million or so and still be on pace to turn a profit if the film's central audience of older moviegoers shows up over the following weeks, Fox says.

"The hard-core fans will come out, and the more moderate fans of the show and original movie will turn out, but they won't have the same urgency to be first in line as those more rabid fans," says Pam Levine, co-president of Fox's domestic marketing.

At the height of its television popularity in the late 1990s, "The X-Files" was one of those shows that, thanks to its intricate narratives, could generate endless Internet chatter about the smallest plot points, both real and imagined. Like modern-day Web surfers who play Scrabbulous at the expense of sleep, those "X-Files" aficionados were so eager for anything related to the show that they helped make 1998's first spinoff movie, "X-Files: Fight the Future," a minor hit, grossing nearly $84 million.

Can history repeat itself? Or will "The X-Files" play more like "Bewitched" or "Miami Vice," television series-inspired movies whose pop culture relevance had vanished by the time they reached theaters? A particular challenge for the film will be delivering enough conspiracy and sci-fi minutiae to satisfy hard-core X-Filers without alienating moviegoers interested in the franchise but unfamiliar with the show's complicated dynamics.

"There were a lot of people who were very intense fans when the series was on the air, and I think they are still going to be very interested in the movie," says Mike Marek, a communications professor at Nebraska's Wayne State College and the webmaster of the fan site X-Files Timeline.

He says the show left so many loose ends when it ended six years ago -- including the fate of Mulder and Scully's baby, and the future of the couple's professional and personal lives -- that its most loyal enthusiasts will want to find out how everything has turned out.

"I think that the people who were fans of the TV show are ready for it," Marek says. "But the networks [of fans] are not as tight as they were when the show was on the air. There is some rebuilding that is needed there."

Fox has made the show's most ardent supporters the center of its marketing push, using the show's iconic X letter in billboards and inviting fans to the film's Wednesday-night premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre to meet with Duchovny, Anderson, Carter and producer and co-writer Frank Spotnitz. Some especially ardent fans camped overnight for the chance to meet their creative heroes.

If Fox can attract the same kind of enthusiasm when the movie opens Friday, it will survive what is shaping up to be a weekend so difficult even the smartest alien might have steered clear.

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john.horn@latimes.com

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