Tough ‘Break’ for so-called B.O. gurus

Act One of the summer box office melodrama has now played out and the gurus are weighing their prognoses.

Certainly the performance of the tentpoles (except for “Poseidon”) has been up to speed — in some cases downright supersonic. Film attendance overall is up a beat from last year, and with “Superman Returns” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” looming, the numbers may reverse the tide of pessimism.

The summer has already had its pleasant surprises. “RV” was embraced in the stix (as Variety terms them), as was Al Gore by the tree-huggers. The ever-dependable family audience has turned out for “Over the Hedge” and “Cars,” but not to the degree their distributors had hoped — indeed, Disney had to downshift its figures for the first weekend, causing the company’s stock to take a small hit.

Then there’s the fascinating anomaly of “The Break-Up” — a movie that most of the self-anointed experts got wrong. The critics were disdainful, the tracking was dismissive and the exit polls were baffling.

Audiences couldn’t quite figure it out either. Guys were annoyed because the two principals kept bickering — a fact that women seemed to find endearing. Indeed, the hostile standoff struck women as a dose of reality, and they identified with Jennifer Aniston’s shrewd manipulation.

The film in any case is a surprise hit, though insiders believe it shouldn’t be — that is, either a surprise or a hit. Sold as a comedy, the film didn’t really deliver big laughs, and that may be why it frustrated the hell out of the researchers.

Eric Gold, the astute manager and producer who looks after Vince Vaughn, believes the entire “Break-Up” episode reflects the dangers of over-dependence on research. Focus groups signaled solid results for “Break-Up,” but wider tracking studies sent up warning flags. Research almost scared the filmmakers into cutting the more serious scenes — the very ones that triggered controversy and apparently helped the box office results.

Despite the worrisome exit polls, the second-week falloff was less than expected. Indeed, the film is already edging toward the $100 million mark and seems headed to be perhaps the season’s top comedy — or dramedy, depending on your point of view.

Whatever its flaws, “The Break-Up” is both edgy and idiosyncratic. Indeed, its success arguably stems from the very factors that earned its dismissal by critics and its problems with researchers. As such, the movie serves as a reminder that the summer will be a bumpy ride and that the predictions of the gurus, and the research that’s all but swamping the marketers, may all be askew.

“Sometimes the researchers get it right,” says Gold. “And sometimes you just have to stick to your vision and hope for the best.”

There are lots of very expensive hopes out there this summer. The lesson of “The Break-Up” is that no one has access to a sure-fire scenario for box office success.

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