When a film opens poorly, it’s usually impossible to stop the bleeding. The natural reaction is for filmmakers, producers and studios to begin assigning blame.
The case of Peter Jackson’s”The Lovely Bones” is an exception.
Adapted from Alice Sebold’s best-selling book, the film opened in several theaters to dismal numbers on Dec. 11. Paramount had positioned the movie as an awards contender, targeting adults. Few bit and the title seemed doomed.
But with Jackson’s support, Paramount was able to do an about-face and completely revamp the marketing campaign and go after young femmes. The studio abandoned plans for an awards campaign and decided to wait until after Christmas to begin advertising in earnest.
Initial release plans called for “Lovely Bones” to add as many as 40 theaters on Christmas Day. But Par and Jackson’s team decided to hold at only three theaters until expanding nationwide on Jan. 15, the beginning of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.
It worked. “Lovely Bones” stunned box office observers in coming in No. 3 for the four-day weekend, grossing an estimated $20.5 million from 2,563 theaters for a total cume of $21 million.
Of the audience, a full 72% were female, while 40% were under the age of 20.
“I think they did an amazing job of changing gears from trying to sell a pre-sold literary title, to selling a film that appeals to younger females. Kudos to them for recognizing their weakness and turning it into a strength,” one rival studio topper said.
There were several turning points: In early November, Jackson called Paramount vice chair Rob Moore to say he’d seen 20th Century Fox’s “Avatar” and that “Avatar” was going to suck up all the oxygen at the box office once it opened Dec. 18.
Jackson suggested that they not open the film nationwide on Dec. 11, but just go out in a few theaters.
Around the same time in November, Paramount began surveying people in shopping malls about TV spots for the film. They fully expected to get the best reaction from adults, particularly older women.
How wrong they were. Instead, it was younger women and teenagers — the “Twilight” crowd — who were the most enthusiastic. Moore arranged for a test screening with this audience in Kansas City on Nov. 19 (coincidentally, Summit Entertainment’s “New Moon” opened in midnight runs on Nov. 20).
Ken Kamins, Jackson’s longtime manager and exec producer of “Lovely Bones,” was at the screening. “The results were tremendous. That night was when the campaign began to change,” he said.
If that’s when the change began, the film’s disappointing opening on Dec. 11 made it abundantly clear adults were no longer the target demo. And there was furious debate among critics as to Jackson’s use of special effects in portraying heaven.
Yet it was the film’s spiritual themes, and the father-daughter relationship, that younger females responded in particular to, Moore said. Par cut ads playing these up and began airing spots on female-skewing channels, including Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network.
Studio also quickly attached a trailer of “Lovely Bones” to “New Moon.”
“Lovely Bones” began as a DreamWorks project, when DreamWorks was owned by Paramount. When the companies divorced, the film went to Paramount.
“Paramount really put effort into developing a relationship with Peter, even with the awkwardness of the DreamWorks dynamic,” said one person close to Jackson.
It also helped that Paramount brought on board former DreamWorks production head Adam Goodman as the studio’s production prexy.
“We feel like we have a really good path with that audience,” Kamins said, who also manages Jackson’s producing partner, Fran Walsh.
“Lovely Bones” cost roughly $60 million to produce after tax credits. It’s grossed $6.8 million at the international B.O. for a worldwide total of $27.8 million. Now the question becomes how well the film holds in its second life.