Monday, July 03, 2006

With the Right Spin, Any Film Can Be No. 1

By Josh Friedman
Times Staff Writer

July 3, 2006

It wasn't enough that the comedy "Scary Movie 4" premiered to a healthy $41 million at the box office in April, setting an Easter weekend record.

Distributor Weinstein Co. further boasted that it was the biggest movie opening in the company's history — all six months of it.

After 20th Century Fox opened its horror remake "The Omen" on the Satanic-sounding "6/6/06" date, the studio dashed off a news release proclaiming the $12.6-million take was "The Biggest Tuesday Opening in Motion Picture History."

Then again, studios almost never launch films on Tuesday because it's one of the lightest moviegoing days of the week.

When it comes to claiming bragging rights in Hollywood, no milestone is too obscure to exploit. Eager to find any marketing hook, studios each weekend put the box-office numbers through a Veg-O-Matic-style analysis, slicing and dicing figures to suit their needs. As a result, records are being set at, well, a record clip.

"It's all gone crazy," said Bob Weinstein, co-chairman of Weinstein Co. "Everybody is creating records, including us, to tout the fact that we're No. 1. The significance is not much, but we cop to being part of it."

Hollywood has long featured carnival barker-like promotion seeking to lure people into theaters. But the weekly drumbeat highlighting the thinnest of achievements has gotten so out of hand, said veteran movie distributor Tom Sherak, that he expects someone to soon claim: "The best opening without somebody in it who was born on a Tuesday morning."

Movie grosses are often subjected to mind-numbing analysis. Last week's premiere of "Superman Returns" was touted as the eighth-biggest Wednesday opening, but it slips to 11th if you exclude Tuesday night advance showings.

It's no longer enough to be among the weekend's top-grossing movies. With the TV, print, radio and online media obsessed with the weekly box-office derby, studios each Sunday scramble to come up with any statistics that set their films apart from the competitive pack, even if those boasts come with asterisks.

Universal Pictures noted that the $39.2 million grossed by its recent Jennifer Aniston-Vince Vaughn film "The Break-Up" was the highest three-day opening ever for a romantic comedy released in June.

The animated "Cars" won its opening weekend in early June with a strong $60.1 million but still fell shy of the $70-million estimates from some analysts. Nonetheless, Walt Disney Co. pointed to a batch of records, including the highest-grossing debuts of Paul Newman, Owen Wilson and Bonnie Hunt, who were voice actors in the movie.

"Those are a little dubious," said Brandon Gray, an analyst at the Box Office Mojo website. "First of all, they're not really in the movie."

Winning the weekend in any niche category can provide a marketing opportunity: DreamWorks Animation and Paramount Pictures advertised "Over the Hedge" as "America's No. 1 comedy" this summer even though it grossed half the revenue of drama "The Da Vinci Code."

"Highly competitive industry that this is, you look for any marks of achievement," said Robert Levin, former film marketing executive at Walt Disney, Sony Pictures Entertainment and MGM studios.

Today's claims are an outgrowth of the box-office obsession that took off in the early 1980s, when studios cultivated media coverage by calling reporters Sundays with estimated weekend results. With the release of blockbusters such as the original "Batman" in 1989, studios more aggressively promoted their weekend winners and started sifting through the numbers to find records they could flaunt.

At the time, the unofficial repository of box-office statistics was just a phone call away in the form of the late Art Murphy, the gruff, chain-smoking Variety reporter who pioneered coverage in the 1960s. If a studio believed that its film had broken a record of some sort, an executive often would quietly contact Murphy to confirm it before crowing publicly.

"If you were on his list of people he would talk to, he would tell you the answer," said Robert Friedman, a former executive at Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures.

Today's records, which studios verify with such box-office tracking firms as Nielsen EDI and Exhibitor Relations Co., can border on arcane.

Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" set a record for a documentary when it premiered in 2004 at $21.8 million.

But that's not all. It also broke the mark for a movie opening at fewer than 1,000 theaters, dethroning "Rocky III." And it had the highest-grossing opening among films that had won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or award, beating "Pulp Fiction."

For good measure, it notched the smallest year-to-date percentage drop in revenue from Saturday to Sunday — excluding Memorial Day weekend and children's movies.

"These records are mind-blowing," a giddy Moore wrote on his website.

Although records enable a studio to put an exclamation point on a robust opening, stressing an obscure mark also can be a tip-off that the movie disappointed.

"The more adjectives you have to put before a number, the less credibility it has," said Jeff Blake, head of worldwide marketing and distribution at Sony Pictures.

Executives acknowledge that records can be a stretch, but say the accomplishments would hold no promotional value if not for the news outlets clamoring for box-office details.

Bruce Snyder, 20th Century Fox's domestic distribution president, said he was stunned by how many horror fans flocked to "The Omen" on its Tuesday premiere. But, he said, he didn't realize it had set a record until a reporter asked him about it the next morning, hours before the studio put out its news release.

"I don't really think it has any meaning," Snyder said of the record, "but it is a way to capitalize on the initial success. People who see that it produced outstanding results might decide to go to the film."

Studios also point to personal bests, especially for major stars, which has the added effect of stroking the talent.

"If you have someone as beloved as Paul Newman in your movie, then you're going to give him the credit he is due," said Chuck Viane, Disney's president of distribution.

In the parody spirit of "Scary Movie 4," Weinstein called the movie "the No. 1 grossing Chris Elliott comedy of all time in the history of the universe," joking about the offbeat comedian with whom he is close friends. "And I feel safe in saying it'll be a long time before that one is broken."

The most obscure records have a ready outlet in trade publications, which chronicle box-office highs and lows in minute detail. In March, the Hollywood Reporter noted that "Inside Man" booked $820,000 at 23 screens in Mexico — an all-time record opening there for a Denzel Washington-Spike Lee film.

One reason records fall so readily today is that, as with many sports achievements, it's easy to outdistance marks set in an earlier era. Ticket prices nationwide average $6.41, versus $4.22 in 1990, the National Assn. of Theater Owners said. Studios in recent years also have increasingly put their muscle behind films' premiere weekends, opening as widely as possible and launching ad blitzes to generate as big a number as possible.

"Superman Returns," which opened Wednesday at 3,915 theaters, leaped in a single bound past previous records for the Man of Steel. That's because the current standard-bearer, 1980's "Superman II," chalked up $14.1 million in its first weekend at one-third as many venues. That number was impressive then, but blockbusters today can gross that amount in a few hours.

Likewise, the exponential growth in foreign box-office receipts and in DVD sales has given Hollywood more record fodder. Films now often get wide releases dotting the globe, rather than the gradual international rollouts of years past.

"Mission: Impossible III" brought in $47.7 million in the U.S. and Canada when it opened in early May, falling shy of lofty Wall Street estimates. But Paramount pointed out that the Tom Cruise thriller grossed an industry record of $1.1 million in the Middle East, a studio record of $1.7 million in Thailand and a Cruise record of $938,000 in Indonesia.

Box-office numbers have never been as finely parsed as they are now. Nonetheless, some of Hollywood's early promoters saw the value of claiming milestones, no matter how fleeting they would eventually prove.

In December 1957, Times Hollywood columnist Philip K. Scheuer reported the "astonishing" $31-million first-year gross for Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments," getting his information straight from the legendary showman.

"There has never been anything like it," Scheuer declared. "At least to date."