Both old-fashioned movie marketing and modern digital buzz helped drive a surprisingly strong weekend at the box office.
Universal's romantic comedy "Couples Retreat," supported by such tried-and-true promotional efforts as an all-expenses-paid tropical press junket, topped the charts this weekend with an impressive $35.3 million, according to studio estimates.
Paramount's "Paranormal Activity," meanwhile, relied on word of mouth and Internet marketing to smash the box-office record for a movie playing at fewer than 200 theaters.
Overall ticket sales were up 9% from the same weekend a year ago, according to Hollywood.com, even though there was only one new movie in wide release, compared with four last year.
"Couples Retreat" marks the first domestic hit for Universal since April's "Fast & Furious." A string of disappointments since then, including "State of Play" and "Land of the Lost," contributed to the dismissal last week of Chairmen David Linde and Marc Shmuger. In a bit of Hollywood irony, the studio had its first hit in half a year just days after their departure.
"You have to credit our former chairmen because it was under their tenure that we produced this movie," said Nikki Rocco, Universal's distribution president.
The studio's new chairman, Adam Fogelson, headed marketing until taking his new job last week, and he put together the plan that paid off handsomely for the film. One of its key elements was a glitzy press junket to Bora Bora, where the movie takes place. Universal flew about 40 journalists to the tropical island in late September for interviews with the cast and other promotional activities.
Although costly junkets used to be common in Hollywood, they're rare these days as cost-conscious studios cut back on expenses. However, Universal apparently decided that lush tropical backgrounds would boost "Couples Retreat" publicity, particularly because stars such as Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau had no competition for the attention of national entertainment media from the leads of other new movies.
One person close to the studio said Universal spent twice as much as is typical on the "Couples Retreat" junket, with the money taken from other marketing efforts. The person noted that the "Couples Retreat" junket generated about 10 times as much media coverage as such events normally do.
Reviews for "Couples Retreat" were brutal, but audiences didn't seem to mind. Ticket sales increased from Friday to Saturday, a sign of good buzz, and moviegoers gave it an average grade of B, according to market research firm CinemaScore.
"When you look at comedies, reviews tend not to matter much," Rocco said.
The opening for "Couples Retreat" is within a few million dollars of past Vaughn romantic comedies "Four Christmases" and "The Break-Up," both of which went on to gross around $120 million. The new film seems poised to do the same and turn a tidy profit.
"Couples Retreat" cost Universal and its co-financier Relativity Media, which covered 25% of the budget, a little more than $70 million to produce, according to a person close to the film. A Universal spokesman said the cost was around $60 million.
This weekend marked a major expansion for Paramount's ultra-low-budget horror flick "Paranormal Activity" to 160 theaters from 33. It was also the first time that the film has played at all hours of the day instead of just midnight. The plan worked brilliantly; "Paranormal" sold $7.1 million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada and was a close second to last year's "Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds," a concert film that played only on pricey 3-D screens, for the highest per-theater average ever for a movie playing at more than 100 locations.
The movie has benefited from very positive word of mouth since Paramount started playing it in college towns two weeks ago.
"We handpicked 13 markets to start in with a lot of college kids because they are by definition the biggest horror fans and the most digitally connected," Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore said. "There's a real sense of discovery as moviegoers are finding out about it from friends instead of trailers and TV spots."
Paramount has spent only about $2 million on marketing "Paranormal Activity" so far, relying primarily on a viral Internet campaign that encouraged fans to "demand" the movie in their cities, along with radio ticket giveaways and spots on MTV cable channels, which are also part of the Viacom Inc. media conglomerate.
Sony's horror comedy "Zombieland," the No. 1 movie last weekend, came in at No. 2 with $15 million.
After three weeks, Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" is $2.4 million behind his last politically charged documentary, "Sicko," despite playing on more screens.
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WEEKEND BOX OFFICE
Estimated sales in the U.S. and Canada:
*--* -- Movie 3-day gross Percen Total Days in tage change -- (studio) (millions) from (millions) release last weeken d 1 Couples Retreat $35.3 NA $35.3 3 -- (Universal/Relativity) 2 Zombieland 15.0 -39 47.8 10 -- (Sony/Relativity) 3 Cloudy With a Chance 12.0 -24 96.3 24 of Meatballs -- (Sony) 4 Toy Story and Toy 7.7 -39 22.7 10 Story 2 3-D -- (Disney) 5 Paranormal Activity 7.1 +1228 8.3 17 -- (Paramount) 6 Surrogates 4.1 -43 32.6 17 -- (Disney) 7 The Invention of Lying 3.4 -52 12.3 10 -- (Warner Bros./MRC/Radar) 8 Whip It 2.8 -40 8.8 10 -- (Fox Searchlight) 9 Capitalism: A Love 2.7 -39 9.1 19 Story -- (Overture/Paramount) 10 Fame 2.6 -45 20.0 17 -- (MGM/Lakeshore) *--*
*--* 3-day gross Change Year-to-date gross Change (in millions) from 2008 (in billions) from 2008 $111.0 +8.9% $8.1 +7.5% *--*
Sources: Times research and Hollywood.com Box-Office