While Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” concert tour was supposed to mark a major comeback for the singer, Sony’s documentary represents a comeback of a different sort: a return to the kind of movie event that Hollywood was once known for.
On Tuesday night, Sony Pictures and Sony Music held 18 nearly simultaneous preems around the world, with the biggest bash — in Los Angeles’ downtown L.A. Live complex — sending a satellite simulcast to the other 17.
Meanwhile, “This Is It” events were held in an additional 15 cities.
The global preem was held Tuesday in order to line up with foreign territories’ usual opening days — films typically bow on Wednesdays in France, for example. The 6 p.m. Tuesday start time in Los Angeles translated to 2 a.m. Wednesday over most of Europe, meaning thousands of fans flocked to screenings in the middle of the night.
The film is playing in roughly 3,500 theaters domestically. It opened in 99 countries including the U.S. and Canada, and expands to 110 territories around the world, with 15,000 prints, this weekend. Plans are for a two-week run.
Sony already is starting to generate big returns for the $60 million it paid concert promoter AEG Entertainment for 100 hours of footage and distribution rights. The first showings of the film earned an estimated $2.2 million in Tuesday night shows domestically and roughly the same amount Wednesday, for a total $4.4 million for two days.
Sony didn’t have an international number as of midday Wednesday, but said the pic was doing equally well overseas, given the interest from fans in seeing what could have been Jackson’s final concert.
“The film was always about letting the fans see what Michael’s dream for the show was all about,” said director Kenny Ortega.
Pic should easily top the $31 million opening weekend of Disney’s 2008 “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour,” which reps the highest-grossing opening for a concert film.
Turnaround to produce the pic was unusually quick for a studio, with footage only acquired in July.
“There was no runway for this, no two years of development,” said Peter Schlessel, prexy of worldwide affairs for Sony Pictures’ Worldwide Acquisitions Group. “From acquisition to release was three months. When we put our minds to something, we get it done.”
Sony executives declined to disclose financial details of the big-scale preem, but the studio did manage to contain costs in several ways.
The only after-party for the premiere took place in L.A., with food catered by Wolfgang Puck, who has a deal with L.A. Live for events, as well as by In-n-Out, Hot Dog on a Stick and Korean BBQ vendor Kogi.
The studio is spending a third on advertising of what it would normally pay to launch a pic, mainly because of all the media interest in Jackson and the existing awareness for the film.
Sony turned L.A. Live’s main courtyard into a glitzy red carpet, complete with crystal-clad women performing acrobatics inside massive Swarovski chandeliers hanging over the celebrities making the press rounds. The L.A. event boasted 5,500 guests and 120 new crews — almost half of them from overseas, which was just one clue to the global blitz for the pic.
To screen the nearly two-hour pic for the guests, the studio took over the adjacent Nokia Theater (where Jackson rehearsed the show before his death), after which 3,500 of them flowed inside the rooftop tent that housed the after-party, where attendees did a rare thing and actually put a half-court basketball-sized dancefloor to use, sashaying to Jackson’s hits.
“I hope this movie becomes the last word on Michael Jackson as a performer,” said Sony topper Amy Pascal. “That’s how he should be judged and remembered.”
Sony made the film’s bow into an event, with the L.A. festivities creating a mood as over-the-top as the extravagant preparations for the concert Jackson had planned, and utilized some of the same props — most notably the chandeliers — that would have served as setpieces.
Nearby, hundreds of non-pro moviegoers stood in line outside Regal Cinemas’ new 14-plex at L.A. Live, ready to be the first ticket buyers to see the film as the premiere’s guests flowed past them to the after-party.
The hype of the rollout will certainly help generate large numbers overseas.
In France, some 2,700 fans turned up for the 2 a.m. preem at Paris’ Grand Rex Theater — dozens had slept in front of the theater. Many dressed like their idol and improvised singing and dancing perfs on the sidewalks.
Some 80,000 tickets have been pre-sold in France, where “This Is It” went out in 17 theaters.
In Berlin, several hundred fans, many dressed in classic King of Pop garb, sang and cried while watching their idol’s final performance on the bigscreen at the CineStar multiplex at Potsdamer Platz.
The theater screened the live broadcast of the L.A. premiere and the red-carpet arrivals before the start of the film at around 2 a.m. Wednesday.
On Tuesday evening, fans gathered outside the cinema under the futuristic circus-like marquee of the Sony Center in honor of the late singer, dancing to Jackson hits like “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.”
There were similar scenes at the opening in London where the pic unspooled at the Odeon Leicester Square and on a giant screen erected in the square.
Celebs including Harry Connick Jr., Irish boy band Westlife, rapper Chipmunk and former Spice Girl Mel B Jr. walked the red carpet early Wednesday.
“It’s not often you open a premiere by saying, thank you for coming out this morning,” said Sony U.K. chief Peter Taylor while welcoming guests at the London preem at 1 a.m.
In Tokyo, Sony CEO and prexy Howard Stringer greeted Lionel Richie as a surprise guest on the red carpet Rippongi Hills Toho Cinemas, where Richie spoke about his longtime friend Jackson. “The part that you’re going to see is the part of him being the real Michael, which is the hard-working guy but at the same time so easy to get along with … the guy I know,” he said.
In Beijing, the movie preemed to a sold-out crowd of 1,100 but fans started gathering much earlier for Jackson performances by Chinese impersonators, celebrity appearances and speeches by organizers and fans.
China gave the documentary one of its coveted 20 annual foreign movie import slots, freeing it to open day-and-date with the rest of the world — a rare occurrence.
While Sony is using the curtain raiser for “This Is It” as a marketing tool to promote the film, Philip Anschutz and the managers of L.A. Live will surely use the event, as well, to push the potential of the venue as a location for future Hollywood premieres.
Regal Cinemas is touting design elements of its new megaplex to attract studio events; Sony will be one of the first when it bows its disaster pic “2012” there.
Large posters for the film adorn the sides of the building on Olympic Boulevard with a red carpet laid down in front, timed with the opening of “This Is It.”
But getting celebs and studio executives to make the trek downtown on a regular basis, especially on a week night, could take some persuading.
Traffic on freeways heading down to the site are often at a standstill, given that it’s rush hour when premieres often take place.
However, management still needs to get a handle on parking. There proved to be plenty of parking available using the L.A. Convention Center’s facilities and lots around L.A. Live, but the premiere and a basketball game taking place at Staples Center across the street encouraged lots to raise rates to as much as $30 per car, with all demanding cash.
(Bill Higgins and Pamela McClintock in Hollywood, Elsa Keslassy in Paris and Ed Meza in Berlin contributed to this report.)