Box office also-rans rake in the cash

Studios have long tub-thumped their film hitting No. 1 at the B.O., like an honor-student bumper sticker slapped on a new car.

And why not? As box office receipts have become exhaustively reported in even the general media, top dollar can connote a stamp of approval among moviegoers. But Hollywood’s dirty secret is that the coveted rank isn’t the be-all, end-all in a product-driven market, as several of this year’s highest-grossing releases never landed the B.O. crown, and some of those that did wound up with relative modest grosses over the long haul.

For a timely example, look no further than 20th Century Fox’s “Date Night,” which debuted April 9 with a modest $25.2 million but has yet to fall from the top 10. The bow ranked second behind Warner Bros.’ 3D “Clash of the Titans,” which grossed $26.6 million in its second outing. But “Date Night” has reached a boffo $94 million while never ranking better than No. 2.

Studios use the No. 1 achievement as a marketing tool domestically and internationally. For whatever reason, the mainstream media — print, online and on TV — do not exhaustively report TV ratings or car sales, but they do faithfully run box office reports and accompanying wide-eyed analysis. That coverage fuels word of mouth, which helps marketing. It also gives each studio bragging rights, though everyone in town knows that a big gross and No. 1 position are ultimately less important than profitability.

Sometimes the bragging turns out to be bogus, as films estimated to land at No. 1 on Sundays frequently flip-flop with the second-place film when final totals are tallied. Yet the Sunday estimates are the ones that are ballyhooed in the media.

Warner Bros.’ apocalyptic tale “The Book of Eli” launched in the No. 2 spot Jan. 15 with $32.8 million, and went on to gross $94.8 million, while Fox’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” which launched Feb. 12, benefited as the frame’s only family-friendly offering and cumed $88.6 million. Neither film ever topped their respective frames. Another kidlit adaptation, Fox’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” with a budget far lower than most summer blockbusters, has hit $62 million.

Femme-driven pics “Letters to Juliet” and “The Bounty Hunter” also delivered sizable B.O. runs for Summit and Sony, respectively. In its third frame, Amanda Seyfried starrer “Letters” fell a mere 35% for a four-day gross of $7.5 million, boosting domestic totals to $38.9 million. Pic cost an estimated $30 million, but with foreign presales, the studio is exposed for less than half the budget. Meanwhile, Sony launched “Bounty Hunter,” toplining Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler, on March 19 with $20.7 million for a healthy cume of $65.7 million.

Top B.O. ballyhoo is nice in a town where perception is often more important than reality. But studios know that when a film debuts at No. 2 or lower, word of mouth and sustained marketing can spell long life.

Fox distrib boss Bruce Snyder credits prime market placement and playability as key proponents to the success of “Date Night.”

“Without that reaction of people coming out and having a really good time, ‘Date Night’ wouldn’t be onscreen the way it is today,” Snyder says. “I’d like to congratulate ourselves, but timing had a lot to do with it.”

Stars Steve Carell and Tina Fey were big draws for U.S. auds, thanks to their starring roles on “The Office” and “30 Rock.”

“Lack of competition is what’s going to propel this film to $100 million,” Snyder adds. “And that’s a fantastic result considering (the film’s) opening.”

The hype over No. 1 openings was especially noteworthy in the case of “How to Train Your Dragon”; despite its top placement, the Paramount-DreamWorks Animation pic was described as having a soft launch. The 3D toon went on to gross $450 million and achieve the unusual feat of landing at No. 1 again in its fifth week.

Lionsgate acquired R-rated action comedy “Kick-Ass” for an estimated $15 million and managed to punch out a healthy $47.5 million since its release April 16. And while opening-weekend estimates had the film losing to “Dragon” in its fourth frame, revised figures ($19.8 million) gave “Kick-Ass” enough oomph to claim the top perch.

Lionsgate distrib topper David Spitz says the No. 1 B.O. berth is always a goal. “When you sit down and analyze the release schedule, clearly you want to select a playdate where you think you can win, because when you’re No. 1, you get all that free publicity,” Spitz adds.

Beyond bragging rights, Snyder says top placement can mean a stronger hold for tentpoles or fanbase pics.

Fox’s “The Day After Tomorrow” debuted over Memorial Day weekend in 2004 with $85.8 million, behind “Shrek 2,” which grossed $95.6 million during the long weekend in its soph sesh. “Tomorrow” dropped 59% the following weekend but ended up with a massive $542.7 million in worldwide box office receipts.

This year’s Memorial Day box office saw similar upsets when Par’s fourquel “Shrek Forever After,” earning $57.1 million in its soph sesh, overpowered Warner’s “Sex and the City 2″ ($36.8 million) and Disney’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” ($37.8 million). Yet, given lukewarm reactions and a strong June slate, neither film is likely to reach “Tomorrow’s” heights.

Despite a soft holiday weekend and a comparatively slow summer kickoff, Fox’s Snyder says the year’s standout first-quarter crop points up the importance of taking the long view.

“As long as a film is profitable, we’re happy,” he adds. “But if it doesn’t have that playability, it’s not going to hang around.”

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