Can nonevent films survive in new Event Era?


Event Era: With "Spider-Man 3" opening to business that once defined a successful boxoffice run, the big question now is can nonevent movies survive in Hollywood's new Event Era?

Although the media has labeled this summer the "summer of sequels," it's really a summer of event product. On Spidey's heels there's a flood of other high profile brand name summer releases heading for theaters, including: DreamWorks and Paramount's "Shrek the Third" (May 18), Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (May 25), Warner Bros.' "Ocean's Thirteen" (June 8), 20th Century Fox's "Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer" (June 15), Universal's "Evan Almighty" (June 22), Fox's "Live Free or Die Hard" (June 27), Pixar and Disney's "Ratatouille" (June 29), DreamWorks and Paramount's "Transformers" (July 4), Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (July 13), New Line's "Hairspray" (July 20), Fox's "The Simpsons Movie" (July 27), Universal's "The Bourne Ultimatum" (Aug. 3) and New Line's "Rush Hour 3" (Aug. 10).

It's a list that's made up of some titles that are clearly mega-events and others that are merely events on a lesser scale. A few of these films could rival "Spider-Man 3" in terms of opening weekend strength, but their boxoffice potential isn't the only element that defines their event status. What they all bring to the table is a combination of brand name recognition, star elements on screen or behind the camera, broad audience appeal and the kind of hefty budgets and major marketing muscle that translates into a tremendous advantage in competing for moviegoers' time and money.

Although Hollywood's been moving in this direction for several years, Sony's $151.1 million launch of "Spider-Man 3" hammers it all home and virtually guarantees that the industry will gravitate even more in the future to proven franchises opening with exactly the right timing. A case in point is the fourth "Indiana Jones" action adventure that George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford have re-teamed to make and that Paramount's releasing May 22, 2008.

In Spidey's case being in the right place at the right time meant opening the first weekend in May to kick off the presummer season. For other event films this summer the right timing will be prime holiday weekends like Memorial Day or July Fourth. The rest of the event pack will have to settle for opening dates that put them two weeks behind the last event film's arrival and allow them two weeks in theaters before the next big event turns up.

As wonderful as it is to see the marketplace soaring on the strength of event product -- insiders are talking now about a $4 billion summer and a $10 billion year -- there also are some concerns associated with the Event Era. Although audiences have no trouble recognizing event films, they unfortunately are also very good at figuring out which movies aren't events. Pictures that don't arrive with the trappings of event status can easily wind up in the public's category of "let's catch up with on DVD in a few months."

More than ever, the industry's commitment is to making prime event product that can open to phenomenal worldwide ticket sales and command global media attention. Hollywood wants to make films that people feel they must see as soon as they open because they don't want to risk being the only person who can't talk about them at work or school Monday morning. As great as the risks are when production and marketing costs escalate to the $400 million range, the steep upside for such films is now being regarded as being well worth the gamble. Moreover, with Wall Street money pouring into Hollywood these days, studios are increasingly sharing the risks with private equity firms, hedge funds, investment bankers and wealthy individuals who've made dot com fortunes or scored big in traditional industries and are now attracted to Hollywood's glamour and uncommonly attractive upside. That's because blockbuster movies return the kind of money that people associate with striking oil, but drilling for oil doesn't get you invited to premieres or introduce you to red carpet celebrities. What Hollywood and Wall Street are embracing is the kind of boxoffice global warming that event movies are generating.

As wonderful as this payoff is when it works, it also has ramifications that could be dangerous for Hollywood. By constructing a movie marketplace in which there's such a clear distinction between event product and everything else, Hollywood risks turning moviegoing into an event activity. The danger is that the public buys into the concept of seeing event movies to the point where people don't want to see anything but event movies. Since the industry isn't going to produce enough event movies to release 52 weeks a year -- mostly because that level of competition would probably result in megabudget boxoffice casualties -- Hollywood could wind up with moviegoers only showing up for event films and ignoring the nonevents.

That would represent a dramatic change from the way the film business evolved. In the Golden Age of Hollywood before the advent of television people went to the movies every week or even twice a week when double bills changed because there was no way to see filmed entertainment other than by going to a theater. There were A-pictures and B-pictures in those days. The A's were the event films of their day. They were made by leading filmmakers, had big budgets for their time and starred the studios' biggest stars. The B's were the nonevent movies of their time. They were frequently very interesting, but were made on smaller budgets and usually didn't boast top stars or directors. But those were the days of double bills and theaters would play an A picture and a B picture together, along with a newsreel, cartoon, short subjects and trailers. Moviegoers got a full evening of entertainment and didn't have to choose between seeing events or nonevents.

In the years since then, of course, the advent of television and other home entertainment media like VCRs and DVD players has cut into moviegoing by making new movies available for viewing inexpensively in comfort at home a few months after their theatrical premieres. People can pick and choose what they want to spend money on to see in theaters and what they want to see for much less money at home.

Because home viewing is now such a widespread option, an event film-driven business could become a sustainable model for Hollywood if the industry wanted to do that. Studios could pour most of their resources into turning out a half dozen event movies a year apiece, committing $400 million or more to produce and market each of them and splitting those investments with their eager and very willing Wall Street partners. The release of many of those films could be tied to major holiday weekends. Studios could stake out holiday playdates years in advance, even earlier than they're already doing.

Moviegoers would find a steady stream of event product -- much of it shot in the latest 3-D technology -- to lure them into megaplexes once a month or every other month or every month with a big holiday weekend. In this model the handful of nonevent movies still made by the studios would go very quickly from theatrical to DVD release with all the high-definition bells and whistles to make them look great on the growing population of giant plasma screens in media rooms everywhere.

Unfortunately, this model would be a difficult business for exhibitors. Theater owners need more than event films to put enough bodies in all those megaplex stadium seats throughout the year. Exhibitors are already working on slim profit margins at a time when ticket sales for most movies are front-loaded in the first few weeks of their run when distribution terms favor distributors rather than exhibitors. Exhibitors need to have as many people as possible passing through their doors so they can sell them pricey popcorn, sodas and nachos.

Fortunately for exhibitors, at the same time that the studios are devoting more energy to making event films and other sequels, new well-financed independent companies are stepping up to the plate to produce midrange budgeted original films that don't have to do megablockbuster business to be profitable. Overture Films, Chris McGurk's new venture with Liberty Media has a $225 million financing deal with JPMorgan Chase and plans to produce and release up to a dozen films a year with budgets below $30 million each. Summit Entertainment LLC, Rob Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger's new venture, has access to over $1 billion in financing through Merrill Lynch and is going to produce or acquire and release 10 to 12 films annually with production budgets in the $15 million to $60 million range. Both of these new indies could enjoy good success with their slates of mid-range original films.

In conversations with distribution executives Sunday morning I asked what they thought the rise of event movies means for films that aren't events. Everyone I spoke to said they weren't fearful about the future of smaller movies and felt that audiences would still go to see such films if they had good stories to tell and were marketed well.

"You know what? I think it's always as simple as this," replied Sony domestic distribution president Rory Bruer, who was understandably in great spirits given "Spider-Man 3's" record-setting numbers. "Tell a good story and make sure it has an appeal to people. And make sure you're clear on who you want your audience to be and be able to market it to them. Those are the things, I think, that make a difference. You have to be able to tell a good story. It's always about story at first. Even with 'Spider-Man' and all its amazing special effects and its amazing acrobatics and all that goes on, trust me, the most important (thing) to everyone at our studio is its story first. It really is."

But when the public sees event films enter the marketplace backed by around $400 million worth of production and marketing money and they're brand names and they're clearly a different breed of movie, no one wants to be the only one who hasn't seen them. What happens to the other movies trying to gain a foothold in the same marketplace? "As I said, I think you have to have a good story and you have to be able to find some way to market it to resonate to that audience," Bruer said. "There's always those pictures that catch people by surprise. A lot of those movies could end up grossing $40 million and be highly successful. So it depends on the budget of the film and what your anticipation of it is. You have to find a way after you have a good story and a highly successful production to reach its audience and make them know it's something worth coming out to see. And that's what it's all about. No one said it's easy."

Talking to another distributor Sunday morning I asked if this is now becoming a business of only event movies? "No, but event movies excite people into going to the movies in general," he observed. "'Spider-Man,' given the equity in the brand, was one of these films that all the kids wanted to see. There's so many of these to come for the rest of the summertime I think it will just bring people back in record numbers." The thinking typically is that not only do people feel good about seeing more movies when they've just had a good time seeing one, but they also see the trailers for half a dozen upcoming pictures and that awareness can lead to future ticket sales.

But what does it do all those smaller pictures that aren't designed to be event films? "It makes it more competitive," he answered. "I think that a film can sustain itself in the marketplace if it's a strong property. The weaker properties are going to have some difficulty. As the summer goes on and there are more strong (nonevent) films against some of these big tent poles I think that will bear it out. What we've always known is that strong movies will find (their niche) in the marketplace with a decent advertising campaign. It's always about having a good story and making a good movie. Not so easily done, but we keep trying."

Several distributors I spoke to pointed off the record to some nonevent original films opening this summer that weren't coming from their own studios and that they thought had good boxoffice potential. They were bullish, for example, about Universal's R rated youth appeal romantic comedy "Knocked Up," written and directed by Judd Apatow and starring Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl, opening June 1. Apatow's R rated youth appeal romantic comedy "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" opened Aug. 19, 2005 to $21.4 million and went on to gross nearly $109.4 million domestically and about $68 million more internationally.

I enjoyed a very early look at "Knocked Up" and expect it to do very well at the boxoffice. It helps that the movie's very funny and Apatow's a brand name with young adult moviegoers after "Virgin." In addition, Rogen's emerging as a youth audience star after "Virgin" and "You, Me and Dupree," which grossed nearly $76 million domestically last year, and he's getting media attention right now because he's one of the voice talents in the upcoming computer animated event movie "Shrek the Third." Heigl, who's really terrific in "Knocked Up," has a big following from her starring role on the hit TV series "Grey's Anatomy."

In "Knocked Up" Heigl plays Allison, an up-and-coming entertainment journalist whose life is on the fast track until a drunken one-nighter with Rogen's slacker character Ben results in an unwanted pregnancy. The big question then becomes does she go it alone or get to know Ben?

There also was a good early buzz for Warner Bros.' PG rated romantic drama "No Reservations," directed by Scott Hicks and starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart and Abigail Breslin, opening July 27. As an adult appeal film arriving on the heels of all those summer popcorn franchise episodes, "No" could get a big "yes" vote at the boxoffice from moviegoers eager to finally see something for grown-ups.

"No's" got the right creative pedigree to be on adult moviegoers' radar. Hicks was an Oscar nominee in 1997 for directing and co-writing "Shine." Zeta-Jones won the best supporting actress Oscar for "Chicago" in 2003. Eckhart was a 2007 best actor-musical or comedy Golden Globe nominee for "Thank You For Smoking." And Breslin was a 2007 best supporting actress Oscar nominee for "Little Miss Sunshine." Its story revolves around Zeta-Jones as a master chef in New York who must contend with a brash new sous chef, played by Eckhart, while struggling to bond with her 9-year-old niece, played by Breslin, who's come to live with her.

Distributors pointing to these films emphasized that they didn't cost much to produce, have good stories to tell and are targeted to well-defined audiences that have previously responded to their filmmakers and stars. If nonevent films like these manage to do well in an increasingly event dominated marketplace Hollywood could wind up with the best of both worlds.

Filmmaker flashbacks:
The recent passing of former MGM/UA distribution president Richard B. Graff sent me digging in my archives for a column I recalled doing with him in which he provided some insights into how in 1985 he established Thanksgiving as a prime release date for event movies that previously would not have opened until Christmas. The column that follows is from Nov. 29, 1989, by which time launching big movies for Thanksgiving had already become a Hollywood tradition:

"It was, to say the least, a terrific Thanksgiving for Hollywood. Driven by Universal's $43 million opening of 'Back to the Future Part II,' key films had a five-day gross of approximately $113 million, up 47% from $76.8 million last Thanksgiving.

"Until MGM/UA launched 'Rocky IV' to $31.8 million at Thanksgiving 1985, this was never a big boxoffice holiday. 'The fact of the matter is that there were a lot of objections to going for the Nov. 27, 1985 playdate,' Richard B. Graff, who headed distribution for MGM/UA at the time and is now president of worldwide theatrical distribution for Weintraub Entertainment Group, told me.

"'The 'Rocky' pictures previous to that had been very, very successful and none had played at that time with the exception of the first one, which had opened on a limited run in November (1976) and then broke wider later on. At any rate, the insistence at the time was to open it right at Christmas. Finally, after all kinds of discussions with the producers and everybody else who was involved with the film, my suggestion of Nov. 27 was accepted.'

"The Thanksgiving date was selected far in advance of the film's opening. 'I remember that (then-marketing chief) Greg Morrison and his people created a trailer without any footage from the film before, I believe, the film was even in principal photography,' Graff notes. That trailer was attached to prints of MGM/UA's 1985 Memorial Day release, the James Bond adventure 'A View to a Kill.'

"'The reaction to the trailer was such that the audience absolutely went bananas over it,' Graff points out. 'We found that exhibitors were running the trailer as a featurette. It was perfect timing, which we didn't even anticipate because our trailer was playing with 'Rambo' (Part II) as well as 'A View to a Kill' and 'Rambo' went right through the roof. We had trailers that were on for six or seven weeks and then we made additional trailers. We were on the screen for about six straight months.'

"Why hadn't studios put major product into wide release at Thanksgiving before that? 'Well, nobody thought, up until that time, that a picture could go from Thanksgiving and continue through Christmas,' replies Graff. 'Prior to that, the first week in December the original 'Star Trek' opened to tremendous business. But nothing had ever gone at Thanksgiving and stayed in the marketplace through Christmas.

"'Now, one of the ways I convinced our company as well as the producer to do this was that I assured them that the movie was going to play all the way through. We told that to exhibitors. We insisted that that was the way in which they would have to buy the picture and there would be no exceptions to that. There wasn't any resistance. We did not go into 2,000 theaters immediately because I didn't think that 2,000 theaters could go six or seven or eight weeks on any picture at that point. So we opened in 1,325 theaters.'

"If 'Rocky IV' hadn't done blockbuster business, would Hollywood have passed on Thanksgiving? 'I don't think so,' says Graff. 'It just might have taken a little longer. If it hadn't been in 1985 it might have been 1986. Sooner or later it would have happened because Christmas starts very early. And why shouldn't it start early in our business?'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel