August's hot topic is 'Tropic Thunder'

Rating, release date likely limits boxoffice

LOS ANGELES -- Incessant promo heat and noise for "Tropic Thunder" has some wondering whether the outlandishly violent comedy will break new ground for a mid-August release by opening to outsized grosses.

Not bloody likely.

Despite action scenes involving a Hollywood war movie being filmed in the jungle, "Tropic" is basically an R-rated comedy. It's helpful that topliners Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. have done tireless promo stints for months in advance of its bow by DreamWorks/Paramount two weeks from today.

But have we mentioned this is an R-rated comedy? That makes counting on an opening higher than $30 million or so mere wishful thinking.

Yet that hasn't stopped the wishing.

"You need somebody to step out and prove our business can be a 52-week business, and certainly the tracking is decent on 'Tropic Thunder,' " a highly placed exec at a rival studio said.

Still, tracking is solid but hardly unprecedented. In fact, it's strikingly similar to that for another R-rated comedy bowing one week earlier, Sony's Judd Apatow-produced "Pineapple Express."

So why all the bullish forecasts for "Tropic?" One reason: a months-long attempt by marketing mavens to stimulate word-of-mouth on a film considered tough to sell via conventional means.

Much of the humor in "Tropic" derives from grotesquely exaggerated violence in combat scenes. There is a lot of industry-insider humor as well, but that's never going to be a selling point to the general public.

And good luck pulling together a TV commercial or theatrical trailer based on the broader comedy bits from any R-rated comedy.

"For most movies, you have the opportunity to use the best material and visuals for the picture itself to sell the movie," Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore said. "On an R-rated comedy, most of the movie you can't actually use (because of graphic content). So that's why we had to focus on stimulating word-of-mouth, with people talking about the crazy, hysterically funny moments in the movie that you can't show. One scene was even tough to get approved for the red-band trailer."

Such trailers can only be used theatrically with films sharing similarly restricted ratings, like the R-rated comedy "Step Brothers." So DreamWorks/Par has used the red-band trailer primarily online.



Before a decision in January to move back its release one month, "Tropic" had been slotted for July 15. Execs shifted it to Aug. 15 to get out of the anticipated wake of Warners Bros.' "The Dark Knight"; then they moved it up two days in the hope that positive word-of-mouth from a midweek bow would spur greater patronage for "Tropic" over its first weekend.

Produced for an estimated  $90 million, "Tropic" also has been supported by $30 million or more in advertising, a media campaign roughly comparable to other R-rated comedies. Meantime, promo appearances by its ensemble cast have included the three amigos showing up in person on "American Idol," the MTV Movie Awards, by video at Comic-Con and at Cinema Expo. Soon cast members will be hitting TV talk shows as well as flying by helicopter Sunday for a special screening of the film at Camp Pendleton.

All the humor-laced promos, combined with sustained tubthumping by publicists, have lent the air of an event film that's out of proportion to any reasonable earnings prospects.

"Superbad," an R-rated comedy released last Aug. 17, opened to $33.1 million and fetched $121.5 million domestically. The Apatow-produced comedy bowed a week after action comedy "Rush Hour 3" debuted with $49.1 million.

"Tropic" will follow by one week the Aug. 6 debut of "Pineapple Express." The Seth Rogen-James Franco starrer has played well in test screenings and arguably totes a big audience overlap with "Tropic," though its second-frame business will carry significantly less heft than the $33.1 million sophomore session for "Rush Hour 3."

In fact, that's roughly what execs expect for the opening session of "Pineapple Express," whose midweek bow seems similarly tied to the notion that a restricted rating and narrow core support from young males could limit first-weekend prospects.

It's worth noting that even a $30 million opening for "Tropic" over the third weekend in August would continue a recent trend toward decently sizable bows being mounted in the first few weeks of summer's final month.

Exhibitors have been pushing for years for studios to spread their tentpole releases over all 12 months. But though spring has seen a greater number of big releases and important titles have crept into August, fall and late winter remain no-fly zones for Hollywood's potential highest fliers.

"September and October were pretty deadly last year," said Patrick Corcoran, a spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners.
The most recent fall suffered a double whammy of too many limited releases hitting the market all at once, Corcoran said.

"Really, every month is up for fresh thinking on how to release films," Corcoran said. " 'The Dark Knight' could have done the same business in April or October. If a film is good, it's going to have that appeal no matter when you release it."
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