Reality belly flop makes waves

Upcoming pix scramble to distance themselves

Mike Fleiss, producer of Universal’s upcoming “The Quest,” has just spent his Monday afternoon watching rival spring-break movie “The Real Cancun,” which bombed at the box office over the weekend.

“I’m not surprised (‘Cancun’) didn’t do well,” chortles Fleiss, best-known as the creator of TV’s “The Bachelor.” “You need more than just reality to have a hit movie. You need to have characters people care about and a story.”

So what will “Quest” offer in that vein?

“We have a group of friends who have been best buddies for a number of years who are on a quest to get their friend laid for the first time,” Fleiss relates.

Fleiss and his film editors are in post and U execs are mulling when to slot “Quest” in the wake of the big “Cancun” bellyflop. Meanwhile, reality is setting in for trend-happy Tinseltowners: TV reality shows won’t always translate to the big screen.

“Cancun,” which New Line distribbed, was severely hampered by its “R” rating, but Paramount had previously succeeded with the similarly restricted “Jackass.” So industryites are asking whether a couple of upcoming reality-inspired pics will prove winners or losers.

U execs hope a longer marketing lead time and better-focused characters will help U’s unscripted youth-on-the-make pic “The Quest” succeed where New Line’s spring break docudrama tanked. And Fox believes conventional scripting will help “American Idol”-inspired musical “From Justin to Kelly” perform at least reasonably well.

“Cancun,” which follows the resort-town hijinks of horny college kids, garnered reams of pre-release publicity, from articles keying on the novelty of its concept. It just didn’t ring up much box office coin: “Cancun” bowed in 10th place this weekend with a measy $2.1 million — slim pickings even for a pic costing under $8 million to produce.

“The T&A almost never gets people to go to a movie by itself — they also want a story,” observes one exec at a rival studio.

U and Fox execs argue they’ve taken that into consideration and come up with more more substantive films. But then, nobody would want to say they were exactly like “The Real Cancun” at this point.

“Quest” — which follows a group of youth on a collective booty call — was bounced from the spring release sked in part because it was deemed too similar to “Cancun,” though studio execs emphasize an aim to nurture marketing. And “Justin to Kelly,” though largely a beach romancer of the Frankie-and-Annette ilk, was given its title to underscore that pic’s topliners are the same two singers who finished atop TV’s “American Idol” competish.

“Quest” is likely to be hung with the same “R” rating that so hamstrung “Cancun” — and ditto MGM’s scripted adaptation of homevid’s “Girls Gone Wild” if that spring break movie is ever greenlit. “Justin to Kelly,” expected to get a “PG13” rating, won’t have that problem but does share other handicaps of the reality-inspired genre:

  • a lack of true star power for the all-important chat show circuit,

  • a general disconnect between TV and movies (to wit: Jennifer Aniston is still not a movie star),

  • MTV isn’t a corporate cousin.

One reason Paramount’s movie adaption of the “Jackass” reality show succeeded so well was its production base at MTV Films, insiders confide. It’s one thing to buy ads on the MTV cable channel; it’s quite another to have a seat at the corporate table while a marketing campaign is being constructed.

MTV was notably not involved in “Cancun,” even though the picture was inspired by the cable channel’s long running series of “Real World” skeins following college-age youth in various locales. “Real World” producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray produced the movie, but MTV passed on the project.

It’s worth noting, too, that no “Jackass” sequel is planned. Even reality-pic winners ride an ephemeral cultural zeitgeist that’s impossible to sustain for a film franchise, many believe.

U has yet to assign a new release date to “Quest,” but execs are optimistic a longer marketing lead time can build heat that was never there for “Cancun.” Execs hope pic’s fewer main characters will make “Quest” a more marketable movie than “Cancun.”

“They seemed intent on getting out first,” U vice chairman Marc Shmuger says. “We made a decision that it wasn’t about getting out first but about getting the picture right and getting the campaign right.”

New Line moved “Cancun” from its original May 9 launch date to April 25 in part to beat “Quest” to market. In the process, a promo tie-in with MTV had to be severely truncated. U hopes to get “Quest” into theaters in “the second half of the year,” Shmuger says.

Pre-release tracking data had indicated “Cancun” B.O. would likely be limited to the single-digit millions — though noone expected the low single digits and industry aftershock was apparent by Sunday morning. The campaign for “Cancun” was effectively launched only after pic wrapped on March 21.

“The tracking data was really hard to read, because it was never as big as the buzz,” one industryite notes. “Things got a little out of whack, because there was so much industry interest in the picture (even as) the audience was deciding not to go see it.”

Or simply couldn’t get in. Exhibs have tightened admission policies considerably of late, and a restricted movie rating now generally means youth will actually be restricted from viewing “R” pics.

As for older teens, “If they really wanted to see naked women that’s easy enough to get on video,” one industryite suggests.

“Justin to Kelly,” slated to bow wide on June 13, is being touted as a romancer packed with musical interludes. “It’s like an old beach party movie,” Fox distrib prexy Bruce Snyder says. “It’s very scripted, and there are a lot of production numbers. It has nothing to do with ‘American Idol’ at all.”

A big Fox success would be highly noted throughout Hollywood in the aftermath of Miramax’s high-profile win with its “Chicago” musical.

There appears a bit more skepticism over “Quest,” or any other pic with a direct connection to small-screen reality. Mused one exec: “People don’t want to watch a movie of something that they can watch on TV for free.”

(Gabriel Snyder contributed to this report.)

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