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Blockbuster Debuts Have Hollywood Heads Shaking
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – As the summer movie season nears its second half and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” cranks up for a Friday debut, Hollywood heads are shaking at what appears to be a new gold standard of blockbuster success — the $50 million debut.
If “Full Throttle” tops that mark, it would be the seventh weekend out of nine since the May 2 release of “X2: X-Men United” that the No. 1 film in the United States has beaten what box office watchers are saying is the new benchmark.
“It is the threshold. It is the mark,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Exhibitor Relations Inc.
In all of 2002, only eight films saw a $50 million weekend debut and in 2000, only three did, according to Exhibitor Relations. Given their star power, summer 2003’s films look to easily eclipse all of 2002’s $50 million openers.
Major films like “Bad Boys II” with Will Smith, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” with Johnny Depp, “Seabiscuit” with Tobey Maguire and “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” are still to come in July.
August has the “American Pie” kids returning in comedy “American Wedding,” Nicolas Cage in “Matchstick Men,” and Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck pairing up in “Gigli.”
“Not only do you have pictures that are potentially huge debuts,” said Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, “But several have terrific playability.” That means the films could play well in theaters for weeks.
Chuck Viane, film distribution chief at Walt Disney Co. said the studios have done a good job of programming theaters each weekend with different films for dissimilar audience tastes.
For instance, during the long Independence Day holiday — the start of Hollywood’s second half of summer — three new movies debut: “Terminator 3; Rise of the Machines” aimed at men, “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde” for women and animated “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” for kids.
Still, Blake, Viane and Nikki Rocco, distribution president for Universal Pictures whose “Hulk” set a June record last week with a $63 million opening, are all concerned by the notion they must mount a $50 million debut to be judged a success.
Blake calls it a “scary proposition.” Rocco said it is “unfortunate,” and Viane added “the bar is too high.”
Achieving a $50 million opening is no easy trick. It takes placing the right movie in the right number of theaters and spending tens of millions of dollars on marketing that will create must-see audience awareness.
Low-budget films or less hyped films can easily be overlooked. Often, successful films are deemed unsuccessful simply because they did not open at No. 1.
“Anytime a movie exceeds $30 million, you can still have a major picture,” Viane said.
A good example is “The Italian Job,” a crime caper that debuted against gargantuan fish tale, “Finding Nemo.” It was No. 3 its first weekend with $19 million to “Nemo’s” $70 million. Yet, the well-liked “Job” had “playability,” and it has gone on to rack up a respectable $70 million since late May.
The reason for the new bar is pretty simple. More first-run movies are playing in more theaters than ever before, and there are plenty of seats and show times available at new mega-plex theaters.
The downside is that big debuts generally lead to big ticket sales drop-offs of 50 percent or more in a film’s second week. “2 Fast 2 Furious” opened to $52 million, and in its second weekend fell to $19 million.
“The bigger you open, the bigger the erosion,” said Rocco, but of the “Hulk,” she added, “I’ll open to $63 million and drop off 50 percent and be thrilled with that.”