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'Hangover' puts a hurt on Universal, Will Ferrell

Why did the star's 'Land of the Lost' open so poorly while its rival soared to the top? Never underestimate the power of buzz.

June 09, 2009|Patrick Goldstein

In Hollywood, bad news travels fast. I was sitting in the stands Saturday evening at a Little League playoff game when one of my fellow coaches, who happens to work in the business, leaned over and shared the news -- "Land of the Lost" was a goner, getting trounced by "The Hangover."

The Will Ferrell film ended up a distant third to "The Hangover" and "Up," making $18.7 million in its opening weekend, an especially woeful number for a movie that cost $100-million-plus to produce. In Hollywood, a town full of gleeful Monday morning quarterbacks who love to dance on a freshly dug grave, everyone was eager to poor-mouth Universal Pictures, which has now released three straight duds since the studio had a surprise spring smash with "Fast & Furious."

Much of the most embarrassing questions focus on Ferrell -- and whether his movie-star credentials should be revoked -- and Universal, whose belief in the costly special-effects comedy seems so wrongheaded that it raises concerns about the studio production team's decision-making acumen. But to understand why "Land of the Lost" failed you also have to understand why "The Hangover" soared to a $45-million opening.

Put simply, the movie that won the weekend succeeded because it had a great title, a strong concept and, after gaining a stranglehold on its core audience -- young guys -- it had such great buzz that it expanded into all four quadrants. "The Hangover" built up such a head of steam that it even attracted a huge contingent of female moviegoers who relished the idea of seeing a guys' weekend in Vegas gone comically bad. According to Warner Bros.' marketing chief Sue Kroll, women made up an astounding 46% of the film's opening weekend audience.

Once she realized that the film played with women, Kroll went after them with a vengeance, cutting female-friendly TV spots that played all across the TV spectrum, including such heavily women-oriented shows as "America's Next Top Model," "Dollhouse" and "One Tree Hill," along with the finales of such top network shows as "Lost" and "The Office."

Kroll knew she hit pay dirt when she went to the hair salon on Saturday. She listened with delight as a pair of women relived the uproarious time they'd had seeing the film with friends the night before. "One of them said, 'I loved that guy who was missing a tooth -- he reminded me of my ex-boyfriend,' " Kroll recalled. "And then she said, 'Everyone loves that movie. My mother's going to see it now too.' "

Right, wrong mix

That is what is called major-league buzz -- when even grandmothers are going to see a movie whose target audience is 19-year-old boys. Still, the biggest surprise for me was that Warner made the movie in the first place. Studio chairman Alan Horn, who frequently nudges filmmakers into getting rid of unnecessarily foul language, casual sex and cigarette smoking, is famous for his squeamishness when it comes to raunchy comedy. When I got him on the phone Monday I teased him, asking him how it felt to have such a big hit with a movie that must've made him hold his nose when he was pressing the greenlight button.

"OK, I admit that the film did make me a little squeamish," Horn said with a laugh, "On the other hand, I'd like to think I'm a little more open-minded than I was a couple of years ago. But give all the credit for this to [Warner Bros. Pictures Group President] Jeff Robinov. It was Jeff and his troops who got [director] Todd Phillips involved, allowed the movie to be R-rated and let Todd make the movie he wanted to make. Having worked with Todd on 'Starsky & Hutch' I knew he was a funny guy and had a lot of confidence in his comic instincts. But Jeff really ran point on this. He's my partner in the filmmaking process, and I think it's appropriate that our movies reflect his sensibility. He clearly knew what he was doing."

It would be hard to say the same thing about Universal and Ferrell's experience with "Land of the Lost." The movie's disastrous opening had to come as an especially cruel blow to Ferrell, since Phillips -- the man who directed the film that walloped him -- was the man who made Ferrell a star with "Old School." In a way, you could say that Ferrell was in the wrong movie, since Ferrell's biggest successes have been in outrageous comedies like "Old School," "Talladega Nights" and "Blades of Glory," films with essentially the same ingredients as "The Hangover."

As one rival studio marketer put it: "Will got creamed by a movie from the genre he helped popularize -- the R-rated stupid-guy comedy. It helped that it had a great title, but anyone who saw one TV spot knew what 'The Hangover' was supposed to be. No one ever knew what 'Land of the Lost' was going for. Was it supposed to be scary -- or was it supposed to be stupid? The end result was neither fish nor fowl, a family movie with a scary dinosaur and a movie star best known for frat-boy humor. It was a bad mix."

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