'Transformers' transforms Fourth of July strategy

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Fourth focus: The trouble with Fourth of July as a boxoffice holiday is that it always falls on the fourth day of July, making it particularly challenging to open a picture in years when the Fourth is on a Wednesday.

That, of course, was the case this time around and it makes Paramount's 6 1/2-day blockbuster launch for "Transformers," a DreamWorks Pictures/Paramount Pictures co-production, all the more impressive. Orchestrating the robots' arrival to start with Monday evening previews that generated $8.8 million was a great way to start things off on the right foot. Those previews attracted fans who couldn't wait to see "Transformers" and they, in turn, sparked great word of mouth to drive other moviegoers to see the picture right away.

It was clear that "Transformers" was sizzling hot when its first full day in theaters generated $27.9 million, the biggest gross ever for a Tuesday. Its second day brought ticket sales of $29.1 million, the biggest Fourth of July gross ever, reflecting Paramount's marketing muscle plus a little extra help from some rain on the east coast. With its cume through Wednesday at nearly $66 million, "Transformers" is well on its way to the $100 million to $125 million range insiders have been projecting for its first six and a half days in theaters.

Unlike Memorial Day, which is always on a Monday, or Thanksgiving, which is always on a Thursday, Fourth of July can turn up on any day of the week depending on what the calendar happens to be like that year. When Fourth of July turns up on a Wednesday, movies don't get to enjoy a traditional four or five day holiday weekend.

But because moviegoing is now so closely tied in our culture as a way to spend time on holidays, no matter what day Fourth of July happens to fall on, it's an opening day magnet for opening high-profile pictures. This wasn't the case in the past, but it's definitely true now. By structuring its own non-traditional 6 1/2-day opening period, Paramount came up with a strategy that will be the model to follow the next time Fourth of July falls on a Wednesday -- which, by the way, will be in 2012.

We can see how much more creative Hollywood is today when it comes to coping with Fourth of July on a Wednesday by flashing back six years to the modest results for Fourth of July 2001. Although Hollywood had seen some strong Fourth of July openings prior to then, they'd all come when the holiday fell on days that allowed for long weekends. In 1996, Fox scored with "Independence Day" ($50.2 million for three days and $96.1 million for six days including previews) when the Fourth was on a Thursday. In 1997, Sony triumphed with "Men in Black" ($51.1 million for three days and $84.1 million for six days including previews) when the Fourth was on a Friday.

In 1998, Disney topped the Fourth of July weekend chart with "Armageddon" ($36.1 million for three days and $54.2 million for five days) when the holiday fell on a Saturday. That's even worse for Hollywood than having the Fourth on a Wednesday because Saturday is the week's biggest moviegoing day and having the Fourth on Saturday means there's no bump up at all from having a holiday somewhere else during the week. In 1999 Warner Bros.' "Wild Wild West" rode into first place ($36.4 million for three days and $49.7 million for six days) when the Fourth was on a Sunday.

In 2000, Warner Bros.' "The Perfect Storm" opened in first place on Fri., June 30, grossing $41.3 million for three days. The Fourth was on a Tuesday that year. When the holiday falls on a Tuesday, Monday winds up being a day off from work for many people. "Storm" grossed $12.3 million on Mon., July 3. It did $9 million on Tue., July 4, which gave it a five day gross of $62.7 million. The drop in business Tuesday versus Monday reflected to some extent the competition that Fourth of July moviegoing traditionally faces from outdoors activities like going to the beach, picnicking, barbecuing and celebrating the day with parades and fireworks. Over the years that competition seems to have diminished and today visiting air conditioned megaplexes seems just as attractive to many people as a visit to the beach.

Fourth of July falling on a Wednesday in 2001 wasn't great news for Hollywood. Warner Bros. chose the pre-Fourth of July weekend (June 29-July 1) to launch its high profile Steven Spielberg's sci-fi drama "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," starring Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law. The story of a robotic boy who wanted to become real, "A.I." opened to $29.4 million at 3,242 theaters ($9,054 per theater). It went on to gross $78.6 million domestically, making it 2001's 28th biggest grossing release.

Other distributors stayed out of "A.I.'s" way that pre-Fourth of July weekend. Sony opened John Singleton's drama "Baby Boy" on Wed., June 27, grossing $8.6 million for the three day weekend and $11.7 million for five days. Disney launched the romantic drama "Crazy/Beautiful," directed by John Stockwell and starring Kirstin Dunst, and did $4.7 million for three days. And Paramount opened the urban youth comedy "Pootie Tang," directed by Louis C.K. and starring Chris Rock and Lance Crouther, to $1.5 million for three days. The lack of boxoffice excitement in the marketplace that Fourth of July is evident in the weekend's key films total gross of $122.6 million.

Fourth of July 2001 wasn't marked by big boxoffice fireworks. It saw the arrival of Warner Bros.' action comedy "Cats & Dogs," directed by John Guterman and starring Jeff Goldblum and Elizabeth Perkins. It topped the chart with $21.7 million for three days and $35.8 million for five days. "Dogs" ended up doing $93.4 million domestically, making it the year's 24th biggest movie.

Fourth of July also saw Miramax's genre label Dimension Films open the R-rated horror comedy sequel "Scary Movie 2" to $20.5 million for three days and $34 million for five days. It went on to gross $71.3 million domestically, making it the year's 32nd biggest film. The three day weekend also saw 20th Century Fox open the crime thriller "Kiss of the Dragon," directed by Chris Nahon and starring Jet Li and Bridget Fonda. "Kiss" did $13.3 million for three days. For the post-Fourth of July weekend key films took in $126.8 million.

Six years later, Hollywood's gotten a lot better at making the most of Fourth of July when it falls on a Wednesday. This year's pre-Fourth of July weekend was a tasty launching pad for Disney and Pixar's "Ratatouille" with $47 million for three days. Remy the Rat cooked up a nourishing cume of nearly $73 million through Fourth of July. Meanwhile, Fox kicked off "Live Free or Die Hard" on Wed., June 29, giving it a five day cume of $48.4 million. It had blasted its way to $63 million-plus through Fourth of July. Both films were established very successfully in the marketplace prior to the onslaught of DreamWorks and Paramount's "Transformers" that began with Monday, July 2's previews. With no wide openings coming this weekend, "Transformers" will benefit from not having to face any big new competition during its first actual weekend in theaters.

That breathing spell, of course, won't last very long. Next Wednesday will bring Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," the summer's next blockbuster. And while July 11 may not actually be a holiday, it's likely to be the next best thing to one for the legions of "Harry Potter" fans who've already spent over $1.1 billion on tickets to the franchise's first four episodes.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Aug. 10, 1989's column: "Winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival can be a mixed blessing because American critics have been known to turn on films hailed by the French. In the case of 'sex, lies and videotape,' however, that hasn't happened. Indeed, the Miramax release is off to a strong start with American critics and audiences, opening last weekend to $155,982 on four screens ($38,996 per screen).

"Steven Soderbergh, who wrote and makes his directorial debut with 'sex,' was my guest Sunday on The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Movietime cable network series. When he made the $1.2 million film...the 26 year old director had no idea he was about to become Hollywood's hottest new player.

"'Frankly, I was hoping for just a release of any kind, anywhere, for a day or a week,' he told me. 'I felt there was an audience for the film, but that it was a small one. So I've been very surprised at the reaction.'

"How has he coped with going from obscurity to being the filmmaking flavor of the month? 'For me, the key has been to separate the business from my personal life,' replies Soderbergh. 'One of the reasons I stayed in Louisiana as opposed to being in Los Angeles was the overhead is low there and I didn't have to take every job that was offered to me just because I needed the money.'

"Soderbergh's success is all the more impressive because he wasn't a well-connected Hollywood kid: 'I've just been very fortunate that in this case the two people that I knew well in Los Angeles turned out to be the two people I needed to know to get this film made. They were my agent, the late Ann Dollard, and Nick Wechsler, who's one of the executive producers on the film. He was one of the first people I gave the script to. I've known Nick for a long time. He knows where to go to get small amounts of independent money. This time it clicked. I was lucky.'

"Raising the movie's budget 'happened very quickly,' Soderbergh says. 'There was a brief period where the first company that agreed to do the film backed out and we went and found another company. But from the first draft to the screening at the U.S. Film Festival in Park City (last January, when it was voted the Most Popular Film) was 12 months..."

Update: "sex, lies and videotape" went on to gross $24.7 million domestically and launched Steven Soderbergh's directorial career. His most recent film, "Ocean's Thirteen," has grossed over $102 million domestically after four weeks in theaters. Soderbergh was an Oscar nominee in 1990 for writing "sex's" original screenplay. He won the best directing Academy Award in 2001 for "Traffic" and was also nominated that year for directing "Erin Brockovich."

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