Careful handling of musical leads to success for studio

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There hasn’t been much in the market lately to tempt teens and young women — a gap that Universal identified and swiftly acted to fill with its a capella tuner “Pitch Perfect.”

Before the film’s successful wide expansion this past weekend, Universal started with a limited bow of “Pitch” Sept. 28 that it marketed as an early release, attempting to build word of mouth among the pic’s core teen and young adult female demo.

Part of the impetus to begin with an earlier, limited release came after the film began drawing mentions on Facebook and Twitter; topics included one of the pic’s featured songs, “No Diggity,” and the character Fat Amy, played by Rebel Wilson. The sharply written musical comedy co-stars Anna Kendrick and Elizabeth Banks.

“I think the timing was perfect,” said U domestic distribution prexy Nikki Rocco. “We chose this release strategy, knowing the film had an advantage appealing to the young female audience, which has been somewhat underserved.”

The studio described the size and scope of the week-early limited release as “untested ground,” opening at 335 locations including the top U.S. college towns.

This time last year, Paramount tried a similar pre-release word of mouth campaign for the femme-targeted “Footloose,” though instead of releasing the film early, Par hosted free single-screening sneaks of the reboot two weeks before its Oct. 14 bow. “Footloose” wound up with a serviceable domestic cume of $52 million.

Universal’s limited “Pitch” bow yielded an impressive $5.1 million and scored the highest per-screen average ($15,371) during the Sept. 28-30 frame. U execs remained hesitant to proclaim the modestly budgeted pic a hit, but in the film’s first wide weekend (at 2,770 locations), young femmes helped “Pitch” score a solid $14.8 million through Sunday — with as little as a 25% drop in some holdover theaters.

Pic drew 81% of its soph sesh from women; auds under 25 contributed 55%.

“Pitch,” written by up-and-coming TV scribe Kay Cannon (“30 Rock”), who recently landed a pilot commitment from Fox TV, centers on a college a capella singing group preparing to compete in a national competition. The film drew positive early reaction from an extensive test screening campaign — the most aggressive ever for Universal. And while teen girls are not particularly influenced by critics, reviews were also very strong, adding to the pic’s buzz.

The studio brought on social-media monitoring firm Fizziology to help gauge online chatter before and after the release. “The film definitely skewed female,” said Fizziology prexy Ben Carlson, who was tracking whether the pic also could broaden beyond the obvious “Glee” fans.

“The bulk of the film’s (online) conversation came from the 14-24 age range,” Carlson added, though U reported that a respectable 37% of the pic’s second-week gross came from auds over 30.

“There were some people surprised — in a good way — at just how outrageous the movie was at times,” Carlson said.

“Pitch” should turn a healthy profit for U and co-financier Gold Circle Films: It was budgeted at $17 million, and domestic cume is $21.7 million and counting.

Universal begins expanding the film internationally this week to markets including the Philippines and Taiwan. Pic ranked No. 4 this past weekend in New Zealand with just less than $500,000 (including paid previews). “Pitch” launches Dec. 6 in Australia, followed by the U.K. on Dec. 21.

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