He's a world-famous funnyman who commands $20 million a movie. So what does Eddie Murphy get you at the multiplex? In the case of his new PG-rated comedy "Imagine That," some prepubescent girls -- and not too much else.
The year has been brutal for any number of prominent movie stars, as new works from Russell Crowe ("State of Play"), Julia Roberts ("Duplicity"), Will Ferrell ("Land of the Lost") and Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx ("The Soloist") struggled to sell tickets. The prognosis looks equally tough for Murphy's latest effort, a father-daughter fantasy story that may labor to gross $10 million when it opens in theaters this weekend.
Just two years ago, Murphy's fat-suit comedy "Norbit" opened to sturdy sales, with a $34.2-million premiere and a total domestic gross of $95.7 million. But last summer's alien spaceship story "Meet Dave" was an unadulterated disaster -- "complete concept rejection," as some in the business dubbed it -- with opening sales of $5.3 million and an overall gross of $11.8 million.
The discrepancy highlights the sharp divide in the 48-year-old actor's filmography: His broadest, highest-concept comedies ("Norbit," "Daddy Day Care," "Doctor Dolittle," "Nutty Professor") generate steady returns while his comparatively less homogenized titles ("I Spy," "Showtime," "The Adventures of Pluto Nash") don't.
"Imagine That," which was formerly titled "Nowhereland," focuses on a work-obsessed money manager (Murphy) who gains remarkable insights into the stock market from his 7-year-old daughter (Yara Shahidi), who takes her cues from some imaginary friends.
Audience tracking surveys show that Paramount is likely to do even worse with "Imagine That" than Universal did a week ago with its flop "Land of the Lost," which grossed $18.8 million. The four major audience research services -- IAG, OTX, NRG and MarketCast -- predicted that Murphy's movie would gross between $6 million (OTX's number) and $12 million (NRG's estimate).
While the film's early reviews have been mixed, "Imagine That's" real problem lies in its apparent narrow appeal among moviegoers -- and the continuing popularity of several recent releases. The film's long-term prospects hinge on young girls, the one segment of the audience that is showing the most (although it is still scant) interest in Murphy's movie.
For the first time this summer, the same movie is expected to repeat as the No. 1 film: "The Hangover." On top of its surprise win over "Up" last weekend, "The Hangover" is selling tons of tickets in the middle of the week -- $7.7 million on Monday, $6.6 million on Tuesday -- a clear indication of overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth. What's more, nearly half of the film's audience is female, proving "The Hangover" is far from a frat-boy film. Some analysts expect Warner Bros.' "The Hangover" to gross more than $30 million this weekend.
Second place will be a battle between Pixar's "Up" and Sony's hijack drama "The Taking of Pelham 123," with the edge going to "Up." The Pixar movie is on track to gross about $27 million over the weekend, while "Pelham" (which is rated R, and will lose ticket sales to "The Hangover") will gross about $24 million. That leaves "Imagine That" dueling with "Land of the Lost" and "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian."
Murphy, who does not do print interviews, isn't just on the outs with moviegoers. His reputation in Hollywood is hardly sterling, either: He works short days (the producers of "Imagine That" had to add several extra shooting days to complete Murphy's filming); he walked out of the Oscars when he lost the supporting actor Oscar for his performance in "Dreamgirls"; and he famously failed to attend the premiere of "Meet Dave."
But the real no-show, it appears, will be "Imagine That" ticket buyers.