‘Grand Theft’ expected to bully media

Rockstar's game poses threat to summer cash

When “Grand Theft Auto IV” launches April 29, it’s expected to gross a record-breaking $400 million worldwide in its first week. That’s good news for the game biz, but daunting for execs in other sectors of the media industry.

TV network execs who pay attention to the numbers know that young male viewership can dip in the first few days after a blockbuster videogame launches. And home-entertainment honchos avoid releasing big titles aimed at that demo in the same time period.

Now the question is whether film execs will have to factor videogames into their release strategies.

Last summer, “Pirates of the Caribbean 3” broke all box office records, with a $404 million worldwide haul in its first six days, roughly the same amount expected for “GTA IV.” But while “Pirates” was only three hours out of someone’s life at an average price of about $7, “GTA IV” is a $60 investment that provides dozens, if not hundreds of hours of content. That’s money and time that has to come from somewhere else.

And “Pirates” encouraged audiences to go to the movies. “GTA IV” is encouraging audiences to stay home.

So far this year, box office is 3% down from last year. The biz could use some megahits to ignite folks to start going to the multiplex in droves. But “Auto” may create a detour for some moviegoers, particularly the young men who play it most devotedly and are often first in line for tentpole releases.

April is not traditionally a time for big vidgame releases, but “GTA IV” was pushed back from its original date last October. So now the title from Rockstar Games, a subsid of Take-Two Interactive, comes just a few days before the start of the summer movie season and during the first week of May sweeps.

Paramount-Marvel’s “Iron Man” opens May 2, only three days after the “GTA IV” bow. Though they’re targeting the same audience, most pundits feel players will take time out from their game to see the superhero film. But the ripple effect on other films throughout the summer could be a factor — and the effect on TV could be immediate.

Nintendo’s “Super Smash Bros. Brawl,” which is so far the biggest videogame of 2008, bowed on March 9, a Sunday. That evening, TV viewership among the desirable and elusive 18-24 male demographic fell by 8% from the previous week. The next day, it fell 14%.

“Halo 3” — which holds the record for the biggest videogame debut of all time — bowed on a Tuesday, the usual day for vidgame launches. But that Sept. 25 bow happened to be on the week most network shows were premiering. Overall viewership was way up in most demographics — except among male viewers 18-24.

Given that males 18-24 are 5% of the overall audience, that’s not going to sink a series. But it’s a notable slip, particularly given how hard that demo is to reach (which is why the rare show that lures them, like “Family Guy,” can charge a premium for its ads).

Similarly, home entertainment execs say they’ve learned that selling DVDs aimed at young males the week of a major videogame release is not a good idea.

“Videogames are a major source of competition for the disposable income of young males,” says Warner homevideo topper Ron Sanders, “and we avoid releasing big titles on (major videogame release) dates that appeal to young men unless there’s a specific demographic reason.”

Major DVD releases skedded for the week of April 29 are “27 Dresses,” “The Golden Compass” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Not exactly competition for the “GTA IV” crowd.

Blockbuster CEO Jim Keyes predicts “GTA IV” will likely do “two times the volume” that “Halo 3” did for his chain. In fact, he’s using the game launch to start putting videogames in Blockbuster’s lucrative “new releases” section. That’s space that won’t be available for DVDs.

Another factor for showbiz this summer is whether “GTA” has legs, especially since there are no vidgames of its caliber coming out until “Madden NFL” in late August. It’s expected to sell 6 million in the first week. But “GTA III” sold 21 million copies, meaning that there could be new buyers for “GTA IV” throughout the summer and all the way through the holidays. Even if the new edition sells “only” 21 million, at $60 a pop domestically, it could rake in more than $1 billion. At a time when many economists are tossing around the word “recession,” vidgamers seem immune to that concept.

Each edition of “Grand Theft Auto” has made quantum leaps in outselling the previous one. The third version sold 50% more units than the first, so there’s no predicting how high the fourth version can go. (There have been movie sequels that outgrossed their previous editions, but none has made such huge jumps with each new debut.)

Strauss Zelnick, exec chairman of Take-Two and former prexy of 20th Century Fox says, “Clearly, any adult with an interest in interactive entertainment has to own ‘Grand Theft Auto IV.’ Does that mean we compete for a certain consumer audience with some hit movies? Absolutely. (But) it’s hard to predict whether ‘GTA IV’ will influence a specific movie’s opening weekend.”

There has been some hand-wringing in Hollywood over whether the vidgame’s huge opening could rust Paramount-Marvel’s “Iron Man,” which bows only three days later, on May 2.

Both are gunning for the same core audience of young males. But, as long as young men are aware of the film, as one Par insider put it, “It’s ridiculous to think that people won’t take two hours of their time to go see the movie.”

And Paramount seems to be working on the “if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em” principle.

Gamer website IGN features a “launch center” with all the information anyone could want about the most anticipated videogame of 2008, “Grand Theft Auto IV.”

Its exclusive sponsor? “Iron Man.”

(Diane Garrett, Rick Kissell and Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.)