Fox banks on second-week build

Going into the weekend, many wondered whether “Borat” would live up to its hype. Now, after its $26.5 million opening, the question is whether 20th Century Fox left money on the table by deciding to release the pic in just 837 theaters, and whether Friday’s expansion can recoup that.

Industryites are also wondering whether Sacha Baron Cohen’s brand of humor — using zany characters to evoke reactions from unsuspecting people — can be used again in a feature, or whether the rising star’s success will rob him of his anonymity.

Fox is sticking by its release plans for “Borat.” “For an R-rated movie, it’ll perform better in the towns where it will open this Friday than it would have if we had gone in cold,” said Fox distrib prexy Bruce Snyder.

Some close to the comic thesp point to the pic’s amazing $31,607 per-playdate average as a sign the film had enough appeal for a wider release. But some distrib execs point to the still-low awareness of “Borat” — in the latest tracking, which reflects polling from over the weekend, just 57% of people were aware of the film, while 90% had heard of “Santa Clause 3″ — and argue that “Borat” will benefit by waiting a week for word of mouth to build before going out wider.

On Friday, Fox plans to expand “Borat” to around 2,400 locations by booking the pic into some markets it skipped this past weekend as well as expanding the number of runs in markets it’s already playing.

The strategy, said Fox’s Snyder, is to use the sensational opening to create excitement in those smaller markets — where R-rated fare has a reputation for performing poorly and where awareness is likely lower than in urban centers.

For comparison, Snyder points to “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which opened to $23.8 million at 868 theaters during summer 2004. (Before “Fahrenheit,” it had been more than 20 years since a film had won a weekend after opening on less than 1,000; “Rocky 3″ did it in 1982.)

For “Fahrenheit’s” second weekend, Lionsgate and IFC, who distribbed the film for Bob and Harvey Weinstein, expanded Michael Moore’s doc to 1,725 locations, which grossed $16.3 million, a dip of just 32%. Because of the shallow drops, the pic crossed the $100 million mark in its fourth weekend, on its way to a $119 million domestic cume — despite its widest point of release being just 2,011 theaters.

Snyder said Fox didn’t look specifically to book “Borat” into the theaters where “Fahrenheit” opened, but execs at rival studios who have gone through this weekend’s box office results say both pics played many of the same theaters, which are basically the nation’s top-grossing locations. Those tend to be theaters in large cities that have higher ticket prices and bigger auditoriums and thus can do more business in a weekend than theaters in smaller markets.

Even though major studio films are typically released at 3,000 theaters these days, distribution execs say the wider release patterns are driven more by ego than by economics, because to book that many screens requires playing pics at a lot of little theaters that can’t do a lot of business.

For instance, when “Mission: Impossible III” opened to $47.7 million at 4,054 theaters in May, 90% of its opening grosses (or $43 million) came from its top 1,469 engagements. That means the bottom 2,585 theaters generated a paltry $4.8 million, an average of $1,847 per location — barely more than what it costs a studio to manufacture and ship a film print.

That pattern was repeated two weekends ago when “Saw III” opened to $33.6 million at 3,167 theaters: The top 1,535 engagements generated $30.2 million, while the other 1,632 theaters were responsible for just $3.3 million.

“The lesson is that you don’t have to have all these screens to do big business,” said a studio distrib topper. Or, as another studio distrib prexy said, “It just goes to show that anything over 1,500 (theaters) is crazy.”

Another studio exec who compared the “Borat” and “Fahrenheit” bookings said both films opened at mostly the same big-grossing, big-city theaters.

For example, “Borat” grossed about $3 million from its 53 playdates in Gotham this past weekend, averaging around $56,000 per theater. In “Fahrenheit’s” opening weekend, it played 68 theaters in Gotham, which generated $2.4 million, an average of around $30,000. In L.A., “Borat’s” 65 dates did $3 million, while “Fahrenheit” booked 53 theaters in L.A. on opening weekend, grossing grossed $2.2 million.

Like “Fahrenheit,” in the smaller markets in which Fox did open “Borat” this weekend — places like Boise, Baton Rouge and Green Bay — the bookings produced healthy five-figure location averages. In hindsight, “If you could give them a do-over, I think they would take more runs,” said one distrib exec, “But you never know how things will turn out in advance.”

But even those who think Fox could have made more money opening “Borat” wider think the difference is less than $10 million. And while some people who wanted to see the movie could not — whether because shows were sold out or there wasn’t a nearby theater playing the pic — it’s likely they’ll come back this weekend. So even if there was money left on the table, it’s not necessarily gone for good.

As for Cohen, he’s set to bring another one of his characters — the gay Austrian fashionista Bruno — to the bigscreen next. He’s co-writing and producing a “Bruno” pic with “Borat” producer Jay Roach for Universal.

But the runaway success of “Borat” may make Cohen and Roach’s plans for unleashing another one of the funnyman’s alter egos on real, unsuspecting co-stars far more difficult.

When word of the “Bruno” pic began surfacing, handlers for Cohen — who has done all his promo pushes for “Borat” in character — began getting nervous. They worried that any media reports on the pic’s aims would tip off their targets, and tried to keep word of the movie’s plot mum.

But details subsequently emerged in the tabloids and then news reports the world over as “Borat” took off. Now Bruno — who has duped fashion world regulars at New York’s fashion week and in Miami for Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show” — will have his work cut out for him.

“The fashion world is a very small community,” said one editor at a women’s fashion mag. If one person figures it out, they all will. And after the success of ‘Borat,’ I don’t think they’ll be as susceptible.”

New project is being financed by Media Rights Capital.

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