‘Godzilla’ still a tough sell

Sony request of 80% take drives haggling

With the opening of “Godzilla” just 10 days away, Sony distribution execs are locked in heated negotiations with top theater buyers as they rush to book over 6,000 prints of the film into North American theaters.

The normally tense haggling has turned all the more fierce thanks to Sony’s insistance that it receive an unprecedented 80% of the first week’s box office proceeds.

But so far, none of the major national chains have agreed to the terms. And reports now surface that in all but the most competitive markets, Sony has backed away from its 80% demand in favor of more traditional — though still rich — deals.

Sony has much riding on its version of the Japanese sci-fi classic. In addition to an estimated production budget of $160 million, the company is reportedly spending nearly $50 million on domestic prints and advertising.

Confident of opening

But Sony Pictures Releasing prexy Jeff Blake is confident the film will open big, and on a vast number of screens. “The deals are continuing and we are absolutely are on target for 6000-plus screens as we hoped,” he said.

Yet despite all the hype surrounding the release of the pic — or perhaps because of it — exhibitor reaction at an Apr. 30 screening was mixed.

While theater execs generally agreed the film delivered top-notch special effects and non-stop action, some complained it lacked emotion, humor and convincing characters.

“Not blown away”

“Everybody was pleased but not blown away,” said the head buyer for one major chain. “It didn’t have the humor or warmth of ‘Independence Day.’ ”

Still, almost all of the top buyers are confident that the film, which starts unspooling at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 18, will enjoy a monstrous opening week. What skepticism there is has more to do with the pic’s long-term fate.

Michael Patrick, president of Carmike, was unreservedly upbeat about the pic. He believes it will be a must-see for pre-teen and teen boys.

“All the numbers I’m getting are showing the film could do ‘Lost World’ business,” said Patrick.

Big lizard syndrome?

But the “Lost World” comparison makes some theater execs nervous. The Steven Spielberg-helmed sequel to “Jurassic Park” opened to a record-setting $90.2 million over last Memorial Day weekend and finished its run with $229 million.

That made the dinosaur thriller one of the top-20 all-time domestic grossers. But it’s the front-loaded nature of that run — it made over 39% of its cume in the first five days — that puts theater-owners on edge. The way distribution terms work, the exhibitors get to keep more of the box office receipts later in a film’s release.

The fact that Sony is hoping to get the film in over 6,000 auditoriums will likely also contribute to the pic’s fast burn. “Lost World” holds the record with 6,190 prints.

For those reasons, exhibitors balked at giving up 80% of “Godzilla’s” first week’s gross. The deals they are apparently settling on give Sony the greater of either 70% of the gross or 90% of the gross minus a negotiated “house allowance” in the first few weeks.

Current negotiations focus mainly on how many weeks those terms remain in place before Sony’s share drops to 60%. So far, the deals are ranging from two weeks at 70% in the least competitive zones to four weeks in competitive areas.

A handful of smaller regional theater chains have reportedly coughed up the 80% share for the first week.

While those are rare exceptions, Sony’s strategy of asking for 80% may have paid off in the end.

At a time when massive consolidation in the exhibition business threatens to put downward pressure on film prices, the studio sent a message that, when it comes to event pics at least, distribution is holding the line.