Warner Bros. walking on air while would-be partners are left adrift
Warner Bros. financial partners Legendary Pictures and Village Roadshow were among a number of potential backers who decided they didn’t want to board Alfonso Cuaron’s 3D space odyssey “Gravity.” Today, that seems like a galactic miscalculation.
Of course, these companies had no way of knowing they would be passing on one of the biggest box office phenoms in recent years. In just over two weeks, the film crossed $200 million worldwide. But during its long gestation, industry skeptics believed “Gravity” could crash and burn if Cuaron couldn’t develop the cutting-edge technology needed to make the story fly.
Ultimately, with the arrival of the high tech know-how tailor-made for screening the film in 3D and on mega-format Imax, the effect has been astounding.
Audiences are turning out in droves — and not just for a single screening, but for the kind of multiple viewings that signal titanic box office.
During opening weekend, when “Gravity” soared to an October record $55.8 million, more than 3% of the domestic moviegoers said they had already seen the film more than once, according to Warner Bros. That percentage will only grow over the coming weeks, based on the popularity of the premium formats, which foster repeat viewing.
“We know what we have here,” says Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. “This is a phenomenon where people are asking friends and family not only if they’ve seen the film, but where.”
Indeed, Imax contributed 21% of the opening-weekend domestic cume for the film — about an astronaut, played by Sandra Bullock, stranded in Earth’s orbit following an accident in space. Coin from 3D viewing from all venues soared to 80% of the initial take, eclipsing even “Avatar,” which earned 71% from 3D.
“We’re letting (‘Gravity’) percolate and breathe, encouraging people to come back and see it again,” says Imax chairman Greg Foster.
In Hollywood, where competition among exhibs to screen the film was fierce, the newly renovated and re-branded TCL Chinese theater, now the largest Imax location in the world, vacuumed up a whopping $140,000 over the weekend. Just a few blocks away, the Arclight Hollywood contributed almost twice that amount — $270,000 — but with nearly four times the number of screenings. (It marked the first time a film had been shown at both theaters simultaneously, made possible because the Chinese and Arclight are now both being operated by Pacific Theaters.)
“Gravity’s” box office pull has even benefited an Imax documentary: “Hubble 3D” sold out screenings at the science center in downtown Los Angeles, one of the non-commercial Imax locations where the film has been playing since March 2010.
For those companies that missed the “Gravity” takeoff, the film’s stellar performance has become a painful reminder of what could have been.
At one point, Thomas Tull’s production company Legendary (which has since moved to Universal Pictures, where “Gravity” was set up originally) agreed to co-finance the film, but pulled out when original cast members Robert Downey Jr. and Angelina Jolie hit the abort button. At the time, Legendary was under the gun to finalize its slate. Warner Bros., which by then had invested millions of dollars into the project, approached Village Roadshow about partnering. But Roadshow and other outside parties passed because the pic’s economics (with a production budget north of $100 million) didn’t make financial sense, say sources familiar with the matter.
Warners ultimately found a last-minute investor for the finished movie, Brett Ratner and James Packer’s startup Rat-Pac-Dune Entertainment, which paid for less than 25% of the picture as part of its new slate deal with the Burbank studio.
If, as expected, the movie maintains its high-speed momentum through awards season, the outlook for Warner and RatPac-Dune is infinitely bright. And all signs point to an astronomical run, with the film also playing well overseas, where it saw a $28 million opening weekend, depsite playing in only a handful of major markets, including Russia, Germany, Australia and Italy.
Foster calls “Gravity” an “early Christmas resent” for studios and exhibitors. “The habit of going to the movies is created when you have a great experience,” he says.