Film breaks out of crowded season

After spending a pokey 10 years in development, Fox’s “Night at the Museum” opened Dec. 22 to generally mediocre reviews and a good but hardly recordbreaking $42 million. Rival studios considered it a risk overseas, where U.S. family comedies often have a dodgy time.

But the pic has proven a surprising success story, expected to near $500 million worldwide. Domestically, it has remained in the top 5 for a whopping eight weeks, and overseas it has maintained its No. 1 status for six of the last seven weeks.

The success story is a mixture of sticking to proven formulas — and defying others.

For one thing, Fox decided against a day-and-date rollout. Though that’s the conventional trend for tentpoles, the studio wanted to capitalize on various school holidays around the world.

It had a number of challenges in becoming a B.O. behemoth. While parents would likely endorse a comedy that took place inside a cultural institution, would kids find the Mword boring? Fox’s marketing has both embraced the film’s setting — it premiered the pic with a series of sleepovers in museums for families — and assured audiences not to worry.

“The word ‘museum’ is not necessarily a positive,” said chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment Tom Rothman. “We didn’t want to say, ‘Here, have a history lesson.’ So there was a lot of positioning, and we worked on our marketing campaign for over a year before the film came out to tell people that the movie is fun and fantastical and imaginative and also a comedy.”

The trailer played up the visual effects, the slapstick, Ben Stiller and above all, the central fantasy, with shots of miniature soldiers and talking monkeys. The studio also hoped to maximize international appeal by surrounding the U.S. stars with overseas actors, a ploy that worked on films as diverse as “The Da Vinci Code” and “Eragon.”

“The film is very well cast,” says Rothman. “Besides global superstars like (Stiller) and Robin Williams, and a cameo by Owen Wilson, there are excellent international elements. That is not haphazard. Casting (U.K. talents) Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan gives the film an event feeling.”

Italo actor Pierfrancesco Favino is also in the cast as Christopher Columbus, and “Night” has been No. 1 in Italy for two weekends in a row, having taken in $9.5 million there.

The film directed by Shawn Levy, and written by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, has hit about $233 million abroad. It has yet to open in key markets like Japan. Its bow Feb. 7 in France helped the pic return to No. 1 internationally after losing one week to “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

“Night’s” biggest weekendto-weekend dip over eight weeks of play — $232.5 million domestically — was the 35% it lost going into its second frame. The weekend of Feb. 10-12, it dropped just 10%, and has stayed in the top 5 for its entire run so far.

“Museum,” with a high concept that seems in hindsight like a surefire bet, spent 10 years in development at Fox until production honchos Hutch Parker and Emma Watts got the pic going by getting a script that attracted Stiller.

“There’s a semi-educational aspect to the film,” says the studio’s international co-head Paul Hanneman. “We were cognizant of that fact. We didn’t want to make the film seem too educational, but there is some intelligence there as opposed to just any broad comedy.”

But “Night” was not lavished with good notices by the “highfalutin snooty snoot critics,” as Rothman calls them, though he contends the movie worked because it was smart.

“This is an 8 to 80 movie,” says Rothman, “but it doesn’t talk down to people, it talks up to them. It presumes they understand things, and audiences like that.”

Studio is now in the position of having to figure out how to make a franchise out of “Museum.” Levy and Stiller will also reteam on “Hardy Men” with Tom Cruise.

“We set a high bar,” he says. “If the idea is great, yes. If the script is great.”

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