In the latest reincarnation of “Godzilla,” the monster is a victim of its reliance on fish as its only food source. It now appears the Sony Pictures release itself may have relied too heavily on a restrictive diet of young male moviegoers.
Despite a $74 million haul in its first seven days, “Godzilla” is unlikely to become the kind of $200 million-plus megahit the studio had hoped for, at least in part because it failed to attract older auds, particularly women.
The opening is a cautionary tale for the rest of the summer’s would-be blockbusters: With the cost of making and marketing studio summer releases typically exceeding $100 million, the season’s dozen or so wide releases will have to expand beyond their core audience bases in order to turn a substantial profit.
“A mainstream release needs to reach at least two major segments of the moviegoing public,” says one marketing veteran. “You can’t afford to narrowcast.”
In the winter, spring and fall movie seasons, a modestly priced genre film (think: “Wild Things” and “Spice World”) can play to only a niche audience and still end up comfortably in the black.
But summertime is when the costliest films do battle for a vastly expanded audience pool, and few films can afford to attract a single segment of the population.
So while 12-year-old boys will undoubtedly march into megaplexes to see DreamWorks’ effects-driven actioner “Small Soldiers” and 5-year-old girls are probably already pestering their parents about Disney’s upcoming animated feature “Mulan,” the hard work is just beginning for studio marketing mavens.
Having zeroed in on their primary auds, the campaigns must now shift to aim at secondary, and they hope, tertiary groups.
The yardstick of success in crossover summer marketing is last year’s surprise hit “George of the Jungle.” Although the film was ostensibly made for little kids, Buena Vista marketers, Brendan Fraser’s loin cloth and a little bit of luck conspired to turn the broad comedy into a must-see event for teens.
The pic grossed more $105 million domestically.
Event a week
While there are slightly fewer wide releases opening this summer than last year, every weekend from now until late August will boast at least one high-profile studio pic with aspirations to greatness. That means each film has a maximum of one week to establish itself in the crowded marketplace.
Here are a few examples of upcoming summer pics that need to do more than hit just one bull’s-eye.
- “The Truman Show” (June 5). Paramount has its work cut out for it with this one. Ideally, the film would attract star Jim Carrey’s legions of young fans as well as older, more sophisticated auds intrigued by positive reviews.
But the Peter Weir-helmed film, about an ordinary man whose entire life has, unbeknownst to him, been broadcast live on television, isn’t exactly “Dumb and Dumber.”
Here’s the worst-case scenario: Young Carrey partisans who turn out on opening weekend feel cheated — as they did by the 1996 B.O. disappointment “The Cable Guy” — and tell their friends not to bother.
Older auds, put off by preconceptions about the rubber-faced “Ace Ventura” star, also stay away.
One studio exec calls this ” ‘The Front’ syndrome,” referring to the 1976 seriocomic look at the blacklist starring Woody Allen, which bombed at the box office.
To Paramount’s credit, however, “The Truman Show’s” marketing campaign manages to cater to both camps by deftly balancing Carrey schtick with the film’s heady concept. And so far, it appears to be working: advance market research already shows strong interest in the pic.
- “Mulan” (June 19). In order to reverse the downward trend in domestic returns for Disney’s animated features, “Mulan” will have to attract more than just four-foot-and-under females with their obliging parents in tow.
To reach the towering box office heights of past Disney blockbusters such as “Aladdin” and “The Lion King,” the pic will need to attract not only young boys, but also teenagers and even older childless couples and singles.
Selling boys on a film about a girl who pretends to be a boy won’t be a walk in the park. Disney initially played to the film’s strength with a trailer highlighting its stunning artwork and spunky young protagonist. But a few weeks before the release, Disney gave boys and adults a reason to show up: a funny glimpse at a dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy.
- “Dr. Doolittle” (June 26). Fox hopes the combination of cute “Babe”-style talking animals and Eddie Murphy’s slightly edgier humor will turn this film into a bona fide event pic.
But truly successful live-action family films are extremely rare these days, as younger auds are exposed to harder fare such as “Men in Black” and “The Nutty Professor.” In fact, Fox execs are so keenly aware of that fact, they avoid the term family film at all costs.
“Unfortunately, ‘family’ has a bad connotation, implying it’s just for little kids,” says Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Domestic Motion Picture Group. “One thing you don’t want to do is turn off teens.”
- “Small Soldiers” (July 10). This live-action/animation hybrid about warring action figures is a shoo-in for pre-teen boys. So DreamWorks is now focusing on teenage boys and girls. TV spots on the WB hit “Dawson’s Creek” will appeal to teenagers’ nostalgia for toys while another female-oriented spot highlights Kirsten Dunst being attacked by a gang of deranged dolls.
To reach older audiences — the ones who’ll have to drive the 12-year-olds to the mall — DreamWorks will play up the pic’s celebrity voiceover artists, who include Tommy Lee Jones and Spinal Tap.
Younger auds could be problematic, particularly if parents are put off by the film’s violence and likely PG-13 rating. Of course, that stuff is a selling point for kids. Notes DreamWorks’ marketing chief Terry Press. “These days, you can’t get an 8-year-old to go to a G-rated movie.”
- “Lethal Weapon 4” (July 10). Warner Bros. faces a challenge with the costly fourth installment of this 11-year-old franchise.
Traditionally the Mel Gibson actioners have attracted young men in the 18-25 age group, but Gibson, now 43, probably holds less appeal for this demographic than he did a decade ago.
The studio is also counting on longtime “Weapon” fans who have turned middle-aged along with the film’s stars, to provide a key portion of the audience. The casting of comedian Chris Rock is clearly aimed at bringing in younger auds, while a romantic subplot between Gibson and Rene Russo should help woo older women.
Of course, a handful of films such as “Godzilla” and “Armageddon,” which are conceived from the first pitch meeting as event pictures, are only considered successful if they reach the widest possible audience.
For pictures like these, a domestic gross of $100 million — or even more — could still be widely seen as a failure, as it was for last year’s “Batman & Robin.”