"The Lovely Bones" has all the adornments of a prestige drama aimed at adults. It was made by an Oscar-winning director, adapted from an acclaimed novel and features weighty subject matter.
Given that pedigree, Paramount Pictures was stunned to discover that the film's most promising target audience is teen and college-aged girls.
Directed by Peter Jackson and based on Alice Sebold's bestselling 2002 novel, "The Lovely Bones" tells the tale of a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered, then watches over her family and killer from the afterlife. Most people involved in the film originally thought it would primarily appeal to older moviegoers.
But after test research on the movie, Paramount found there was a potentially hidden audience of females between 13 and 25.
That has led the studio to flip-flop its marketing strategy for the PG-13 film in hopes of tapping the same audience that propelled the "Twilight" movies to the box-office stratosphere.
"No one initially thought that 14- to 21-year-old girls would be the sweet spot," said Kevin Goetz, president of worldwide motion picture group for OTX, the research firm that held a Nov. 19 screening of "The Lovely Bones" in Kansas City, Mo., for teen girls and college-aged women. "They found the movie disturbing, but it didn't impede their enjoyment."
"The Lovely Bones" exemplifies how studios sometimes believe they have a firm understanding of what they are selling but are later surprised when moviegoers in focus groups and early screenings weigh in with contrary opinions.
The unexpected interest among girls could prove to be a lifesaver when the movie opens nationwide Jan. 15, since adults so far appear to be lukewarm on the picture. Ticket sales from its first weekend at three theaters in Los Angeles and New York were underwhelming, reviews have been mostly negative, and the movie received just one Golden Globe nomination -- a sign that it could be largely ignored at Oscar time.
Paramount will have to draw huge numbers of teenage girls to make a financial success of the effects-laden film, on which it has roughly $150 million in production, advertising and distribution costs at stake. That's why films targeted at a narrow demographic are typically produced at a much lower cost. "Twilight" and its sequel, "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," are rare examples of movies that have grossed well above $300 million worldwide without significant support from adults or young men.
Although it remains to be seen how many young women will turn out for "The Lovely Bones," the Kansas City screening established that those who see it like the supernatural aspects and view it as a female empowerment tale. The film's protagonist, portrayed by Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, helps her family cope with loss and solve her murder. In describing their visceral reaction, attendees used words like "suspenseful," "moving," "scary" and "exciting," Goetz said.
Paramount has designed an aggressive promotional campaign that kicks off next week featuring TV spots that play up the movie's thriller elements on MTV and such popular teen series as "Gossip Girl," "One Tree Hill" and "Glee." Online, the studio is targeting blogs dedicated to the "Twilight" series.
"While the initial plan was that the primary target audience was over 25, we discovered that the teen and college-aged audience is critical to the success of this movie," said Megan Colligan, co-president of marketing at Paramount.
Paramount first saw the "off the charts" reaction from teenage girls this fall when the film's teaser trailer debuted online and the studio began testing TV spots in shopping malls, Colligan said. That prompted the studio to hold the Kansas City screening for young women, which confirmed its hunch.
Heather Fain, marketing director at the novel's publisher, Little, Brown and Co., said she wasn't surprised at the teen response to the movie. Just before publication seven years ago, the book (which has sold 7 million copies domestically) was excerpted in teen fashion magazine Seventeen, creating a jump in sales on Amazon.com.
Ken Kamins, Jackson's manager and an executive producer of the film, said the director and his partner, Fran Walsh, co-wrote the movie so that it would be watchable by their 13-year-old daughter. "The only surprise is the level of fervor from the teen crowd," he said.
Jackson optioned the rights to "The Lovely Bones" in 2004, soon after he finished work on the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and wrote the script with Walsh and their collaborator, Philippa Boyens. In May 2007, they presented the completed screenplay along with a proposed budget and shooting schedule to all the studios.