Audience tracking surveys are hardly perfect, but rarely are they as far off the mark as when "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" arrived in theaters three weeks ago. Having studied the various appraisals of moviegoer interest, executives at Sony Pictures concluded that, at worst, "Mall Cop" would gross $20 million in its first four days, with a high end of perhaps $25 million in domestic theaters.
The actual Martin Luther King Day weekend returns: $39.2 million.
Since its Jan. 16 release, "Mall Cop" has been a box-office sensation, winning not only that opening weekend by a wide margin but also remaining the nation's No. 1 film last weekend, when it slipped just 32% (most movies fall about 50% in their second week of release) to gross $21.6 million, sneaking past Sony's new Screen Gems genre film, "Underworld 3: Rise of the Lycans."
With more than $67 million in ticket sales so far, "Mall Cop" is well-poised to go beyond $100 million in domestic theaters. It's a highly unexpected outcome for what was once a lowly regarded comedy with an untested lead actor ("King of Queens" TV star Kevin James) in the titular role.
The film's success says less about the fallibility of tracking surveys than it does about audience demand for feel-good stories and Hollywood's growing appetite for low-budget comedies with obvious marketing hooks. While 2008 movie admissions were off about 5% from the previous year, this year's box-office sales figures -- thanks largely to "Mall Cop," "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Gran Torino" -- are running almost 15% ahead of last year's pace.
"You've got a country that is willing to put their economic worries behind them and go to the movies," says Doug Belgrad, the Sony production executive who developed the movie with James based on the actor's own idea.
"And people see themselves in this guy," Belgrad says of James' ne'er-do-well shopping mall security guard, who foils a band of thieves who invade the mall he patrols on his Segway. "They love it when a guy who isn't given credit for being good at anything succeeds."
James pitched actor-producer Adam Sandler, his costar in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry," and Sony his idea for the movie in the summer of 2007. The idea wasn't fully formed, but the movie could easily be parsed into comprehensible Hollywood shorthand: "Die Hard" meets "Home Alone" with an overweight security guard.
Sony and Sandler's Happy Madison Productions -- which has made six movies for the studio that have grossed more than $100 million -- loved the idea but had several concerns. First, a looming strike by the Writers Guild of America meant that James and screenwriter Nick Bakay had little time to work up a screenplay (they finished a draft in about a month), and second, Sony had to beat another mall-cop comedy -- Warner Bros.' much less family friendly "Observe and Report," from writer-director Jody Hill, due April 10 -- into theaters.
Equally important, "Mall Cop" couldn't be expensive.
Once the industry's low-budget alternative to expensive action films, comedies have grown progressively more pricey. Paramount and DreamWorks spent so much production money ($100 million) and gave away so much gross profit (about 25%) on "Tropic Thunder" that last year's Ben Stiller comedy, with a domestic gross in excess of $110 million, will barely make a profit. But the potential rewards for low-budget comedies -- including Universal's $30-million "Role Models" and Sony's $28-million "Pineapple Express" -- are far more attractive.
So Sony budgeted "Mall Cop" at $26 million, deciding that in place of expensive action scenes it would focus on family-friendly gags. "The studio, and specifically Adam, felt that the movie would have its greatest potential as a PG movie," Belgrad says.
"Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and a Chicago Blackhawks hockey gameIn addition to placing a "Mall Cop" trailer on almost every print of Sandler's Christmas comedy, "Bedtime Stories," Sony also bought television spots that reached adults, especially sports broadcasts such as NBA games and the NFL playoffs. Sony's promotions team flooded shopping malls nationwide the day after Thanksgiving, dressing up as mall cops and helping shoppers carry bags to their cars.
The result was not only that a large number of parents bought "Mall Cop" tickets with their kids (rather than simply dropping off) but also that the film played surprisingly well outside of major cities. "The other secret weapon was that it did proportionally even better in the middle of America than it did in Los Angeles and New York," says Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. "There's an audience that maybe isn't all involved in the Oscar movies."
Belgrad and his Sony production chief partner, Matt Tolmach, have a number of modestly budgeted comedies in the works, including Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler in "The Ugly Truth"; "Bad Teacher"; the demolition derby story "The Precious View"; and "Winter's Discontent."
What's less clear is when Paul Blart might save the day again. James has been developing the comedy "Zookeeper" at MGM and may soon costar in a new Sandler comedy for Sony.
"Happy Madison historically has been very reluctant to do sequels," says a hopeful Belgrad. "But we believe there is an opportunity to make another Paul Blart movie."