'Battleship' torpedos negative box office buzz

“Battleship” has sailed into a headwind of negative perception since the project was announced in 2009: It took forever to greenlight, it’s based on a boardgame with no narrative, it lacks bankable stars, it’s opening overseas first and it looks too much like “Transformers.”

But those last two may not be so negative.

As one source tells Variety: “We have a running joke around the lot that every time ‘Battleship’ is compared to ‘Transformers,’ a Universal exec gets their wings.”Though Universal officially downplays the comparison, it’s an easy one to make, and not just because of the mechanized, destruction-bent alien technology. Both are Hasbro properties whose source material is heavy on recognition but light on storyline, with ample loud, bombastic action and humans who take a backseat to the spectacle.

It’s a formula that’s worked before.

“At its core, it’s supposed to be a big, rousing, fun piece of summer popcorn madness,” director Peter Berg said at WonderCon, where U unspooled several minutes of footage last month.

Berg & Co. hope those comparisons continue at the box office, where Paramount’s first three “Transformers” pics have grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide. Though “Battleship” is a longshot to reach those heights, international territories are comparing favorably, including $17 million in its opening five days in China, the highest-grossing bow for a Universal film there (the original “Transformers” bowed in China to $13.3 million, though the country’s exhib footprint has grown significantly since 2007; the most recent installment, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” opened to $41.4 there last year).

In Russia, “Battleship” grossed an estimated $11.2 million last weekend, its first outing — compared to $8.9 million for the original “Transformers” in its first week locally. And it beat out local openings of “Fast Five,” “Thor” and “Wrath of the Titans.”

The final test of “Battleship’s” seaworthiness comes May 18 when pic bows Stateside, where for nearly three years Universal has endured swells of dubious buzz.

At the heart of it has been the budget: Universal insists the project met its target at around $209 million, though rumblings have put the price significantly higher. Whatever the price, U has since delivered three trailers that don’t shy from showing where all that money went, spawning early comparisons to “Transformers.”

From a marketing standpoint, those comparisons were taken as compliments, insiders say. U still worked to make “Battleship” its own, and because of its long gestation period and marketing execs’ early involvement, the studio had plenty of time to understand what it was working with.

That long lead time also gave the studio a wider window to start marketing early, including a teaser trailer that bowed last summer. While one marketing exec expressed concern that today’s oversaturated auds can grow weary of too much tubthumping, that person also noted Warner Bros. had no problem starting its large-scale push for “Dark Shadows,” which opens a week after “Battleship,” a couple of weeks ago.

The casts of “Transformers” and “Battleship” also share similarities, in that both Paramount and Universal chose rising stars over A-list talent. Neither Shia LaBeouf nor Megan Fox was a big star in 2007, and the same goes for “Battleship’s” Taylor Kitsch (who did little to buoy Disney writedown “John Carter”) and Rihanna (a pop music superstar, but unproven as a bigscreen draw).

Universal floated one element with “Battleship” that has little precedent: Instead of a splashy day-and-date release or U.S. bow with platformed worldwide rollout, studio chose to steam around the world first. The strategy appears to be working so far, as the film crossed $100 million in international-only grosses in two weeks with $131.2 million from 50 territories, opening No. 1 in 37 of those.

U distrib insiders tell Variety the early rollout had much to do with the competitive landscape and holiday calendar overseas. April holidays — especially in Japan and China — were seen as a good fit for the father-and-son-friendly pic, while European soccer matches will create a logjam of midsummer film releases.

Another perception problem “Battleship” faced was created by its own studio, which was already well into production when Comcast took over in January 2011. Two months later, Universal jettisoned big-budget projects “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Dark Tower” even as it was facing questions about “Battleship” costs.

A year after questions about the studio’s recent releases and decisions were raised, perceptions have changed drastically. U is on top with B.O. hits like “Safe House” and “The Lorax.” Now it’s up to summer tentpoles including “Battleship,” “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “The Bourne Legacy” to sustain that pace.

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