Commentary: Hollywood sizzles while all else fizzles


Merry May: It's almost embarrassing to see the movie business sizzle while the rest of the U.S. economy continues to fizzle.

The year-to-date statistics compiled by Media by Numbers President Paul Dergarabedian are as amazing as Hollywood could possibly hope for given the deep recession we're struggling with. Through last weekend, boxoffice revenues for 2009 were $2.756 billion, up 16.3% from $2.369 billion one year earlier, and attendance was up 14.6% from the comparable point of '08.

It's the kind of business that should have movie moguls dancing in the streets rather than sharpening their budget slashing knives. Nonetheless, doom and gloom continue to prevail in Hollywood thanks to the economic vulnerability of the studios' corporate parents. This is the price the movie business is paying today for having sold itself to the highest corporate bidders who mistakenly thought there was great synergy in owning movie studios along with advertising-dependent media like broadcast television networks, cable systems and newspapers. Believe me, the moguls who founded Hollywood are rolling over in their graves.

What's happened is that the parent companies' losses from recession-driven advertising cutbacks have generated draconian budget cuts and layoffs at the studios. Instead of limiting spending cuts to their loss-ridden badly managed divisions that deserved to be cut back, the global media giants have also sliced and diced their healthy, successful and profitable studios' payrolls and marketing spends.

That's exactly the opposite of what Hollywood should be doing now that moviegoing's become our new national pastime. Actually, Dergarabedian said it best earlier this year when he called moviegoing "the new vacation" for Americans who no longer can afford to get away. If moviegoing is how people are now escaping from grim reality, bolstering marketing budgets or at least keeping them unchanged would really be the way to capitalize on the public's new appetite for movie escapism.

Instead, the studios are on such belt-tightening diets that they can't put the kind of marketing muscle behind their releases that could take moviegoing to an even higher level. It's worth remembering that when a movie sells $300 million worth of tickets, that only works out to about 42 million people at the current national average ticket price of $7.18. Since there are some 300 million people in the domestic market, there's a much bigger audience for Hollywood marketers to go after -- but to do so would require more, not less, money.

Hollywood really isn't even making the best use of some of the dollars it's now spending. The studios continue to plow too much marketing money into network television advertising despite the new realities of the marketplace. Network television was a great buy in the '80s, but these days it's losing its audience to cable TV, which is doing well with original programming that delivers the targeted audiences advertisers want today, and to the Internet.

People are spending more time with their other screens -- their computers and their Internet linked mobile phones -- and when they do watch network TV they're using TiVo and other DVRs to time shift. A recent study by TiVo found that network shows in the 9 p.m. hour were the most likely to be viewed later via DVRs. This time shifting was done by 59% of viewers. Programs in the 8 p.m. hour were time shifted via DVRs by 58% of viewers. TiVo also reported that about 30% of the programs that were recorded on DVRs were watched within one hour of when they were broadcast. That's bad news for programs airing in the 10 p.m. hour because they're likely to lose out to what's waiting to be played back on TiVo.

Although Hollywood's spending less money these days on consumer newspaper ads, even that's too much given falling circulations and the fact that young people -- i.e., Hollywood's target audience -- don't read newspapers. As much as I love newspapers -- as a kid growing up in New Jersey I was always buying papers from other U.S. cities and from London at the big newsstands in New York -- the fact is that today's young people are getting their news via the Internet.

The days of buying expensive double-truck Sunday newspaper ads because filmmakers want that kind of opening weekend ego satisfaction should be a thing of the past. And all those ads with showtimes and theater locations are a waste of money because today's prime moviegoing demographic gets its showtimes from the Internet or from mobile phone apps using GPS technology to determine where they are and where the closest theater is that's showing the movie they want to see. The audience Hollywood is chasing buys its tickets online rather than by standing in line at the boxoffice. Online should be getting a much bigger slice of the Hollywood marketing pie.

Meanwhile, on the heels of a spring that blossomed with mega-openings like "Fast & Furious" ($71 million), "Monsters vs. Aliens" ($59.3 million) and "Hannah Montana: The Movie" ($32.3 million), a very merry month of May is now just around the corner. Here's a quick rundown of the wide releases on deck and a look back at the May 2008 weekends (with domestic grosses from Media by Numbers) that they'll have to outperform.

Weekend One (May 1-3): X as in 20th Century Fox's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" marks the spot as what used to be called the "pre-summer" season kicks off. Directed by Gavin Hood, it stars Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber and Danny Huston. The first three episodes in the "X-Men" franchise grossed nearly $607 million and this one looms as a giant, which is why nothing else is opening wide this weekend.

Last year (May 2-4, 2008) the first weekend in May saw Paramount and Marvel Entertainment's "Iron Man" open to $102.1 million ($24,024 per theater), including $3.5 million from Thursday previews. It wound up grossing $318.4 million domestically. All films in the marketplace took in $159 million, down 16.1% from $189.5 million in 2007 when Sony and Marvel's "Spider-Man 3" kicked off to $151.1 million for its first three days ($35,540 per theater).

Weekend Two (May 8-10): Paramount's "Star Trek" will be the weekend's high flier. Directed by Jeffrey J. Abrams, the reinvented franchise stars John Cho, Ben Cross, Bruce Greenwood and Simon Pegg with an appearance by Leonard Nimoy. The 10 preceding "Star Trek" episodes grossed nearly $756 million. The last one, 2002's "Star Trek: Nemesis," grossed only $43.3 million as the original franchise was running out of steam. The new film, however, focusing on the early days of James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock at Starfleet Academy and their first outer space mission, appears destined for the boxoffice stratosphere.

Also opening wide this weekend is Summit Entertainment's R-rated action comedy "Next Day Air," directed by Benny Bloom and starring Donald Faison, Mos Def and Mike Epps.

Last year (May 9-11, 2008) the second weekend in May saw "Iron Man" continue to top the boxoffice chart with $51.2 million, down only 48%, with its cume reaching $177.8 million. There were unexciting openings for Fox's "What Happens in Vegas" ($20.2 million) and Warner Bros.' "Speed Racer" ($18.6 million). All films in the marketplace grossed $125 million, up 17.9% from $106 million in '07 when "Spider-Man 3" held on to first place with $58.2 million.

Weekend Three (May 15-17): This is another one-horse weekend as everyone stays clear of Sony's "Angels & Demons," the prequel to its 2006 blockbuster "The Da Vinci Code." "Angels" reteams director Ron Howard and Tom Hanks as symbologist Robert Langdon. "Da Vinci" grossed $217.5 million despite being trashed by the critics. "Angels" should be equally critic-proof and should benefit from being the second episode in a blockbuster franchise.

Last year (May 16-18, 2008) the third weekend in May was led by Disney and Walden Media's opening of "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," the second episode in that franchise, with $55 million ($14,007 per theater). The film ended up grossing a modest $141.6 million given its budget of reportedly $215 million. Disney decided not to co-finance "The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader," the series' next installment, and Fox signed on instead. "Voyage," which is opening Dec. 10, 2010, reportedly has a much reduced budget of $140 million. "Iron Man" came in second with $31.8 million, bringing its cume to $223.1 million. All films in the marketplace grossed $132 million, down 27% from $180.9 million in '07 when DreamWorks and Paramount's "Shrek the Third" placed first with $122.5 million (including Thursday night previews).

Weekend Four (Memorial Day weekend from May 21-25): Warner Bros.' "Terminator Salvation" will get a jump on the competition by opening Thursday, May 21. It's the latest installment in the "Terminator" franchise that's grossed nearly $394 million since it began in 1984 as a low-budget independent film that opened to $38.4 million, which was impressive business at the time. This time McG directs and "The Dark Knight's" Christian Bale stars. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not on board as he's busy starring in a political drama based in Sacramento, but there's still every reason to anticipate very big boxoffice bucks.

May 22 will see Fox launch "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," directed by Shawn Levy and starring Ben Stiller and Amy Adams. The PG-rated comedy is the sequel to Fox's 2006 blockbuster "Night at the Museum," which grossed $250.9 million.

Rounding out May 22's wide openings is Paramount's PG-13-rated action comedy "Dance Flick," directed by Damien Dante Wayans and starring Marlon Wayans, Amy Sedaris and Shawn Wayans.

Last year (May 23-26, 2008) the fourth weekend in May saw Paramount unveil "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" to $152 million for four days (including $25 million from Thursday previews). It ended up grossing $317.1 million. "Narnia" finished second with $29.8 million and "Iron Man" was third with $26.1 million. All films in the marketplace took in $219 million, down 14.1% from $255.1 million in '07 when Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" was first with $153 million for four days (including $13.2 million from Thursday previews).

Weekend Five (May 29-31): May should go out like a lion thanks to Disney and Pixar's animated family feature "Up," directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson. Last summer Disney and Pixar struck boxoffice gold with "Wall-E," which grossed $223.8 million and was the year's fifth-biggest film.

Universal's "Drag Me to Hell" will provide some good counterprogramming targeted to horror thriller fans. Directed by Sam Raimi (the "Spider-Man" franchise), it stars Alison Lohman and Justin Long.

Rounding out the weekend's wide releases is Summit Entertainment's PG-13-rated romantic drama "The Brothers Bloom," directed by Rian Johnson and starring Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo.

Last year (May 30-June 1) the fifth weekend in May was a stunner with Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema's "Sex and the City: The Movie" kicking off to $56.8 million ($17,305 per screen). It went on to gross $152.6 million and to spawn a sequel opening May 28, 2010. "Indy 3" came in second with $44.8 million, bringing its cume to $215.6 million. All films in the marketplace grossed $168 million, up 24.6% from $134.8 million in '07 when "Pirates" topped the chart again with $44.2 million and Universal's "Knocked Up" opened in second place to $30.7 million ($10,690 per theater).

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