'Knocked Up's' R rating didn't keep Uni from sexy launch

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"Knocked" kick-off: When a film doesn't cost $300 million to make it can be very profitable without having to open to $150 million.

A case in point is Universal's sexy $30.7 million kick-off last weekend of the critically acclaimed R rated comedy "Knocked Up," written and directed by Judd Apatow ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") and starring Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel and Martin Starr. Produced by Apatow, Shauna Robertson and Clayton Townsend, it was executive produced by Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Its storyline revolves around Heigl's entertainment TV reporter character becoming pregnant after a drunken one-night stand with a slacker (Rogen) whom she's just met in a bar.

Unlike the megablockbusters of May, "Knocked" didn't cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. It was brought in on a budget of about $30 million -- or slightly less than its opening weekend gross -- and that's put it on a boxoffice track clearly should make it nicely profitable for Universal. As an early fan of "Knocked," which I saw and thoroughly enjoyed in mid-March, I was delighted to see it connect so well with audiences last weekend. My own enthusiasm for the picture has been echoed by critics across the country. In fact, with its 92% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com, "Knocked" is the critics' best-liked major studio release of the year to date.

The film also has the distinction of being the fourth biggest R rated comedy in terms of opening weekend ticket sales, according to Media by Numbers. Interestingly, two of the three pictures that opened to bigger grosses than "Knocked" are also from Universal. "American Pie 2" takes top honors with $45.1 million, "American Wedding" (the third in the 'Pie" franchise) is third with $33.4 million. New Line's "The Wedding Crashers" is second with $33.9 million while 20th Century Fox's "Borat" rounds out the Top Five with $26.5 million.

To explore how Universal met the challenges of marketing "Knocked," a film that not only was R rated but whose sexually candid comedy was very difficult to turn into quick trailer sound bites, I caught up with Universal marketing president Adam Fogelson.

"Thank goodness there's still room for joy and celebration at a $29-or-$30 million opener," an understandably very happy Fogelson told me Sunday afternoon when estimates had "Knocked" arriving to about $29.3 million. As it turned out, Sunday's ticket sales for "Knocked" were even better than expected, almost equaling Friday's grosses, and it wound up doing a really huge $30.7 million.

"When you make them for $30 million," Fogelson noted, "it gives you a lot of outcomes where you could be excited and this is the top end of what we could have possibly hoped for so it's sterling."

Addressing how the film's success was achieved, he emphasized that it began with Apatow's movie itself: "We saw the movie many, many months ago and from the first time we screened it for ourselves and for an audience we knew that Judd and his team had delivered an extraordinary film. Not only was it hysterically, hilariously funny, but it also managed to really affect people emotionally. The characters and the circumstances had real, real impact unlike 'Virgin.' I mean, 'Virgin' was also funny and also touching, but the basic premise was a little bit out there. There are 40-year-old virgins in the world, but not a giant number.

"In this case, dealing with a relationship between two people and a pregnancy and what to do about it and how it changes your life is something that virtually everyone has gone through -- whether it's themselves or someone they care about. So his ability to present a movie that was this funny but also this emotionally affecting was very compelling."

Originally, he added, "We had slated it for an August date that was sort of identical to where '40-Year-Old Virgin' had been a couple of years ago (when it opened Aug. 19, 2005 to $21.4 million at 2,845 theaters). But when we saw how incredibly accomplished the movie was and remembering back to last summer when we had success putting 'The Break-Up' in this exact weekend, we felt like it was worth taking a shot at moving it into this incredibly historically competitive corridor. (We) believed there was a way to get the word out and have it open -- although we could never have dreamt it would be this big -- and then give it the full breadth of the summer to play out to whatever eventual number it might get to."

Interestingly, "Knocked" came into the marketplace at a time when all the big films that had preceded it were transporting audiences into fantasy worlds of masked superheroes, fairy tale ogres and Caribbean buccaneers. Indeed, "Knocked" is about as real as the real world can get. "Absolutely true," Fogelson agreed. "We expected and were not surprised at all to see the three super giant movies in May do astronomical business. We fully expected that would happen, but we thought that we could not only survive but benefit from being the first comedy and the first sort of 'real' film to come into the marketplace this summer.

"We thought that we were going to be providing a real clear distinct alternative to what those three amazing juggernauts were doing and felt like far from being lost amidst that other stuff, that clear point of distinction was actually an opportunity and a way for us to completely distinguish ourselves. And we trusted that we could do that -- largely believing that if we showed the movie often enough in advance of release it would be virtually impossible for the word not to be out there as we came to market. And I'm convinced that that's, in fact, exactly what happened."

Asked about the challenges posed by the fact that so much of the funniest material in the film is from scenes that couldn't be excerpted easily to use in trailers or TV spots, Fogelson replied, "This was far harder in terms of creating traditional advertising materials than 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' was or most other comedies (are). '40-Year-Old Virgin' was also R rated, but there were many, many, many moments that were easily reduced into three or five or seven second advertisable opportunities. This movie really doesn't break down that way and we always knew that we would create a compelling audio visual and print campaign, but that it was going to require much more than that.

"Publicity was really going to be, as much as it's ever been, the full centerpiece of the sell of a commercial comedy. And that meant that Michael Moses, who runs publicity (executive vp, Publicity), and his team worked tirelessly for months to time out how the movie was seen, by whom it was seen, in what environment it was seen (and) how often it was seen. I mean, we screened this movie as much as we've ever screened (any film with) hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of screenings across the country. We made sure that we got the press's attention very early on and made sure that they came and saw the film."

Looking back on how Moses and his team met that challenge, Fogelson observed, "I think that they did an extraordinary job of really focusing people on the fact that, yes, there were all these other giant movies, but there was this film coming early in the summer (and) that all of Judd's work, and particularly 'Virgin,' had put him in a very special place (so) that he deserved special recognition and attention for what this movie was. And it all came together beautifully. I'm proud of the AV campaign. I'm proud of the print campaign. But publicity did an extraordinary job and they absolutely deserve very special acknowledgement for the work they did."

Without taking anything away from "Knocked's" stars, all of whom I thought were terrific in their roles, they're not big superstar names. "They weren't," Fogelson noted, agreeing with my thought that their success here will work to elevate their profiles for the future. "It absolutely will. And, you know, one of the many, many things that I've been incredibly proud of in the years that I've been here at Universal is the company's ability to treat every movie as a movie that has a chance to break out and be huge. I think that we've had more than our share of successes with surprising break out hits because the entire group from production through marketing believes that every movie is an opportunity for that -- whether it was 'American Pie' seven or eight years ago (or), you know, two years ago Steve Carrell certainly was a name, but wasn't nearly what he is now.

"We've done this many times before and could not have had better partners this time out. Seth certainly wasn't a household name, but I'd encourage anyone who wants to see near perfection in how to help publicize a movie take a look at what Seth did on this film. He worked so hard and not only did he do everything, he did it brilliantly. His television appearances, his constant work doing radio phoners and anything and everything that we thought was important for him to do -- he not only did it, he did it spectacularly. Katherine Heigl is busy making another film, but also carved time out of a schedule that has virtually no time in it to make herself available for key opportunities. And everyone -- and I think this also goes back to Judd -- committed themselves to doing whatever it took. I think the public responded to just how fresh and real not only the movie was, but the people who made the movie are. And I think that was also a great benefit."

Coming back to the marketing challenges posed by "Knocked," Fogelson pointed out, "An R rated comedy that doesn't have moments that are easily reduced into trailer and television spots is certainly one challenge that we all had to face. A second is that the concept of the movie as described in its title is not something that everyone immediately laughs at. I mean, let's face it, the concept in the title of this movie is one of the scariest and potentially most difficult things that a person or two people could ever go through. We're not starting with a hilarious comic fantasy when we describe the concept of this movie. And that also was a challenge. When you first hear about a movie that is a comedy about two people who people who accidentally get pregnant, that's a challenge all by itself.

"But to some extent we've had practice with that, too. You know, two people breaking up isn't necessarily, one would think, cause for hilarity. We had a great time, also, last summer with 'The Break-Up' and I think that was tremendous practice for us in learning how to sort of walk the line there. So I'd say the difficulty of reducing the film down into advertise-able moments and a concept that at first blush could seem difficult for some people would be the two biggest challenges (we faced). But they were more than offset by one of the most stunningly accomplished movies for its genre I've ever seen."

The fact that "Knocked" is off and running so well certainly suggests there's an audience eager for more than just high-profile franchise episodes. "We've seen it again and again and again, summer after summer after summer," he recalled. "And I have no reason to be anything other than ridiculously optimistic about the future for this film. 'There's Something About Mary' opened to ($13.7 million) way back when (July 15, 1998 via Fox) and surfed its way through the summer to ($176.5 million domestically). 'Wedding Crashers' opened to ($33.9 million) in the middle of the summer (July 15, 2005 via New Line) and made its way all the way north (of $209 million domestically). And 'Virgin' opened at the end of the summer to ($21.4 million) and found a way to cross a hundred million dollars (to $109.4 million domestically). And even a movie like 'Little Miss Sunshine' last summer, which was brought to market as much more of a specialty film than this film, continued to chug away week after week after week last summer regardless of what kind of competition came to the marketplace (winding up with nearly $60 million domestically via Fox Searchlight Pictures).

"I mean, we're sitting here with an extraordinarily huge opening for an R rated comedy in the midst of a historically competitive summer. But we always believed that the most important thing in starting was just to open big enough to give it a chance to play. And with the reactions we've seen from people in theaters (and from the critics it's) sitting here today as the best reviewed movie of the year so far. There hasn't been a place where we've shown it where people haven't just been completely awed by its ability to combine that level of hilarity with that level of character development and investment in the characters. That's a pretty potent combination. I'm excited to watch this play out."

Fogelson takes particular satisfaction in "Knocked" being, "The best reviewed major studio release of the year (to date). Any way you look at it, it's a pretty stunning comment on an R rated comedy that just opened to (over $30 million). And I couldn't be happier for Judd. He's an amazing partner and someone I'd go into battle with any time and every time he has something for us to do."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From July 10 & 12, 1989's columns: "With so many independents in trouble nowadays, the continuing success of Morgan Creek Prods. -- with such hits after one year in business as 'Major League,' 'Young Guns' and 'Dead Ringers' -- suggests it has adopted the right approach to being in independent production.

"'We really are like a ministudio,' observes Morgan Creek chairman James G. Robinson, who founded and owns the company with producer-director Joe Roth. 'You have production companies who have historically spent their time in development but really used the studio system all the way through -- not just money and distribution, but also the creative people. Some independent producers really and truly don't make the movie once it gets past development.

"'You have others who produce one film every year or every two years. My observation over the last 10 years is that with a lot of independent producers the common thread seems to be that they spend too much time gathering money and not enough time gathering talent and good scripts.'

"Robinson puts great emphasis on the value of good writing: 'You can't make a good movie without a good script. We put forth a great deal of effort in finding or commissioning and having good scripts written. Then we follow a movie all the way through. We spend no time when it comes to money. We don't search out investors or partners. We don't spend our time putting together deals to raise money. We spend our time trying to put together the best picture possible.'

"Of course, the reason Morgan Creek doesn't have to raise money is that thanks to Robinson it started out with enough money to do what it wants to do. Before getting into film production, Robinson was enormously successful in the automobile business as one of America's largest Subaru distributors, with billings of over $3 billion a year. In 1984 he financed the widely acclaimed drama 'The Stone Boy,' produced by Joe Roth, with whom he later launched Morgan Creek...

"Instead of taking on the risks of being in domestic distribution, Morgan Creek prefers to use the distribution services of several of the majors -- including Paramount ('Major League'), 20th Century Fox ('Young Guns' and 'Dead Ringers') and Universal ('Renegades'). 'In this town they refer to it as rent-a system, which is a term I don't quite like using because it's not complimentary,' he notes. 'But the systems, by the way, are very good. All the major studios have good theatrical distribution systems.'"

Update: Robinson and Morgan Creek have had their ups and downs over the years, but are still going strong. Roth, of course, dropped out of Morgan Creek years ago to run studios (Disney and Fox) and then launched his own Revolution Studios, where he's also had his share of ups and downs. After a long distribution association with Warner Bros., Morgan Creek now has a distribution arrangement with Universal, which opened its drama "Georgia Rule," directed by Garry Marshall and starring Jane Fonda, Felicity Huffman and Lindsay Lohan May 11.

Robinson made headlines while "Rule" was in production by writing Lohan a no-nonsense letter telling her to start showing up for work on time and to stop her nightly partying that he said was endangering the production. While "Rule" hasn't done well -- moviegoers weren't attracted even by Lohan's latest tabloid headlines and endless Internet coverage -- there are high hopes for upcoming Morgan Creek films, including a new episode in its "Ace Ventura" franchise to be directed by Steve Oedekerk. Oedekerk directed the 1995 episode "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls," which grossed over $212 million worldwide.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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