Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
Hollywood will be glad to know the mega-opening weekend still has some life in it. Last weekend The Da Vinci Code
made a staggering amount of money very quickly, giving hope to Hollywood's reigning economic model: open big and then who cares.
This time five years ago, after Pearl Harbor
opened with huge numbers that fell short of impossible expectations and then quickly turned into an expensive, crappy flop of a film (chasing bombast guru Michael Bay
to the safety of Sequel-land
) there were rumblings that Hollywood's business plan was due for some realignment. Fortunately, studio heads have fought off these calls for creative and original thinking.
Over the past decade increased emphasis had been placed on the box office receipts for a film's opening weekend. Of the top ten opening weekend grosses
, the oldest was turned in by the ancient first Harry Potter movie in 2001. Inflation can only explain some of this. Money has been poured into massive marketing campaigns to generate event-level excitement and bring out great reserves of movie goers. If a studio can make back half a movie's budget in three days, it can coast to profitability. This model has one very distinct advantage: most of the money is taken in before everybody realizes how horrible any given movie is.
For a while, this model seemed flawless. Buy more billboards, make a movie seem important, watch the opening weekend gross climb accordingly. Pearl Harbor
revealed the point of diminishing returns. An estimated $70 million was thrown at marketing the movie and box office records remained disappointingly unshattered. An epic, a sexy young cast, a self-aggrandizing trailer, just short of groundbreaking special effects, huge marketing budget. How could that not generate obscene numbers? Relative to the film's budget, it didn't, making only
$75 million over the four-day Memorial weekend. Since the movie was wretched, subsequent grosses were also disappointing.
Those who make their living prognosticating about the entertainment industry point to the rise of the DVD and the bootleg as the major forces making Hollywood rethink its business model. It might have more to do with a movie-going public that has realized there can only be so many event films in a given period of time. Isn't it suspicious that movies that thrillingly tap into the national consciousness always seem to be opening on the first and last weekends in May, July 4th, and Thanksgiving? And can even the bevy of super-soft entertainment news show like "Entertainment Tonight" generate enough chipper enthusiasm for four or five event movies per year? And is Wild Wild West
really some sort of national touchstone that is required summer viewing?
Some movies are legitimately events. They really are cultural discussion pieces and you best see them if you want to make friends at the water-cooler. True, some level of event status can be bought up with a hefty marketing investment. (Estimates for marketing a high-profile Hollywood film are in $40 million realm. Bigger pictures with bigger budgets and bigger expectations need even more paid cheerleading.) Increasingly, however, cagier marketing is needed to snag perceived event status and enthusiastic opening day ticket sales. Rather than adjust their game plan, many studios are opting for the cagier marketing. After all, there are still grotesquely large openings to be had. Just one year after Pearl Harbor
came up short, Spiderman
set an opening weekend record it still holds: $114 million on its way to $400 million domestically, with an estimated $50 million spent on marketing. And the ride continues. The Matrix Reloaded
set four- and five-day opening records that were soon broken by the final Star Wars
film. Spiderman 2
laid brief claim to the five-day opening record, as well. Note that these were all sequels, however. Audiences were willing to rush out to tentpole pictures only if they were a known commodity. No longer could unbridled enthusiasm for any old event movie be purchased with $70 million of teevee spots, billboards, and happy meal tie-ins. Perhaps this last throe of the classic event opening helped produce the record number of sequels that cluttered the major releases of summers 2003
The new path to the event status and critic-proof quick cash of massive opening weekends? Controversy. The publicity is free and has a thicker sheen of authenticity since coverage of a controversial movie opening will flicker across screens showing the nightly news as well as "Inside Edition." If ballyhoo can be created from affairs and scientology that's fine, but the real cash cow is event status through more significant debate. Last week, of the top fifteen opening weekends, only one movie was not a sequel: The Passion of the Christ
. This weekend, The Da Vinci Code
joined those storied ranks, insinutating itself into the number 13 slot with a $77 million bow. Potential ticket buyers learned to spot a crap movie wrapped in event packaging, but they may not yet be savvy enough to recognize a crap movie wrapped in the buzz of carefully cultivated "news coverage." The Da Vinci Code
has a massive built in audience but its marketers went the extra mile and courted controversy with abandon. Inspired by The Passion of the Christ
they have sought ways to stir the religious dollar and even resorted to the oldest trick in the book: drumming up an albino controversy
to get some free publicity.
If a movie angles for a huge opening and doesn't get it, the luster is immediately gone. If words like "disappointing" are laced in the Monday box office reports, well, it appears we were all lied to last week. If we only see one movie this year it does not have to be this one. One would think an industry as creatively risk-averse as Hollywood would make smaller movies, spend less on marketing, and hope for longevity. As it stands, after that massive opening weekend movies move quickly along. The Da Vinci Code
will have to step aside this weekend for X-Men 3
to take a crack at the record books.
The biggest grosser of all time opened with a paltry $29 million dollars, currently the 179th most ever. But then the film did that level of business for weeks on end, holding the number one spot at the box office for a record 15 consecutive weeks. Titanic
did what the SS Titanic never could: thrived on repeat business. Marketing costs: a relatively small $40 million. Total grosses: $600 millions in America; a cool billion worldwide. 18 months later, a Bruce Willis movie with an even smaller marketing budget opened with a similarly not-breathtaking $26 million. It generated genuine, rather than billboard-induced, enthusiasm and kept bringing in those numbers for another four weeks. The Sixth Sense
, beyond anyone's wildest expectations, brought in $300 million, is still carrying M. Night Shaymalan's resume, and has established Eerie Movie with a Twist Ending as its own inimitable genre. Movie people like go a long way. Somehow, the trend at the studios is still grab the cash early and often and worry about quality later. Moviegoers are developing new bullshit filters, however, and things might have to change. The controversial event movie will now have to become as streamlined and well managed as the marketing blitz event movie. After all, even with a puny, limited-release opening, gay cowboys are still good for a nifty $85 million