Exit polls show great legs for "Mamma Mia!"

Core audience is post-"Sex" women

"Mamma Mia:" For anyone with doubts about Hollywood's health, last weekend's spectacular boxoffice business should be very reassuring.

With nearly $261 million in ticket sales, last weekend was the biggest three-day non-holiday stanza in Hollywood history. Not only was there a record setting $158.4 million launch for Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight," but Universal's $27.8 million opening of "Mamma Mia!" was the biggest ever for a musical and an amazingly good number in the face of such staggering competition.

The weekend's strength was a clear indication that moviegoing remains a major recreational pastime in contemporary American culture. As long as Hollywood continues to release films that people want to see and markets them effectively, audiences will show up at the boxoffice -- despite soaring gas prices, expensive parking, rising ticket costs, overpriced concession stand food, sticky theater floors, rude audiences using cell phones during movies, the lure of wide screen home theaters, competition from video-on-demand and the ever-shrinking DVD release window.

While "Knight's" mega-blockbuster kick-off and broad audience appeal was widely anticipated, not everyone was confident that "Mamma" would find its audience opposite that 800-pound gorilla. As things turned out, Universal enjoyed its own victory with "Mamma," attracting the same adult female core audience that made "Sex and the City" a big hit. It's a marketing success story that I was happy to be able to focus on Sunday with Universal marketing president Eddie Egan.

"We knew the stage musical and the followers of ABBA had a huge base of enthusiasm," Egan explained. "What happened with 'The Dark Knight' this weekend is amazing not only for what happened but the fact that the movie business is alive and well -- and that's great for the whole industry. We did always feel that 'Mamma Mia's' first and most avid audience base was different from 'Dark Knight's.' So you're right -- there were some questions from a lot of people when it was dated there (opposite 'Knight'). But we always felt we could break through and we're sitting here today happy that we did."

As is so often the case in Hollywood, history tends to repeat itself. When the first "Batman" (directed by Tim Burton with Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as The Joker) opened via Warner Bros. in June 1989 it grossed a then-huge $40.5 million. Disney risked launching its family comedy "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" opposite it and it paid off with a $14.3 million gross that also a very good number for its time. Just as the marketplace expanded then to make room for a second film that a different core audience wanted to see, the marketplace expanded last weekend to enable "Mamma" to perform so well.

"I think if you get your message out well enough and have it established before something like 'Dark Night' happens people will go out," Egan told me. "There's evidence that the people who came out to see 'Mamma Mia!' this weekend made plans to do that a while ago. We saw a lot of evidence of groups going -- mothers and daughters and girls' night out."

That, of course, is right in line with the recent success of "Sex and the City" with adult female moviegoers. "Yes, absolutely," he agreed. "One of the places we very happily had our trailer (playing) was on the opening of 'Sex and the City.' Our full trailer was on that movie so we were reaching women very successfully. Between what the stage musical had done since 1999 (playing to over 30 million people in 170 cities around the world and eight languages) and with ABBA being one of the most successful pop groups in history and this trend now of women going as groups to movies, it was all there. The thing I think that unlocked it for us is it doesn't hurt to have Meryl Streep in the leading role in this movie. She really unlocked something that made everyone say, 'I've got to see that.' That was a very, very important factor."

Indeed, Universal's exit polls found the main reasons moviegoers gave for seeing "Mamma" were its musical numbers (53%), Meryl Streep (50%), the songs of ABBA (48%) and that they like musicals (47%). Overall, the film's audience was 81% female and 64% 30 and older. Thirty-six% of the audience had seen the stage musical and 55% said they'd heard of it, but hadn't seen it.

Females 30 and older rated the film well above average with 93% in the top two boxes (excellent and very good) and a 77% definite recommend. Males 30 and older were almost as enthusiastic with 91% in the top two boxes and a 71% definite recommend. Bottom line: "Mamma" should have very nice boxoffice legs.

"The openings in Europe and the holds this weekend were amazing," Egan said, bringing in an additional $27 million. At its current pace, "Mamma" is heading towards a massive $200 million or more in international release.

"Mamma," a Universal presentation in association with Relativity Media, is a Playtone/Littlestar production based on the Songs of ABBA. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who staged the hit musical, it stars Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Julie Walters, Dominic Cooper, Amanda Seyfried and Christine Baranski. Its screenplay is by Catherine Johnson, who wrote the stage play, and its music and lyrics are by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. The film was produced by Judy Craymer, who produced it on the stage, and by Gary Goetzman. Its executive producers are Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks and Mark Huffam.

Reflecting on the studio's marketing of "Mamma," Egan tipped his hat to Universal's marketing and publicity teams, including Keri Moore (senior vp, creative advertising), Suzanne Cole (executive vp, media), Doug Neil (senior vp, digital marketing), Michael Moses (executive vp, publicity), Amanda Scholer (vp, national publicity) and Greg Sucherman (senior vp, field publicity & promotions).

Moreover, Egan observed, "Judy Craymer is someone who knows and respects marketing and she is expert at it. She also was very curious about the difference between stage marketing and movie marketing and very eager to learn. And actually she really got it very quickly because there are huge differences."

In marketing "Mamma," he added, they began with a terrific movie and also "had the worldwide popularity for 30 years of ABBA. It's a movie about a wedding. People love movies about weddings. A wedding in a place of absolute beauty (a Greek island). A story about mothers and daughters. And at the wedding a group of people find themselves and fall in love.

"We never wanted to stray from that or pretend that it was something other than that because that sounds like something people would sign up to pretty easily. And it had the great virtue, also, in terms of how the movie looked and how we presented it. It was just funny and inviting and pure and we just wanted to relay that in all our materials -- 'just sit in the theater and it's like taking a vacation at the movies.'"

Asked how the marketing effort evolved, Egan told me, "As with any movie, you start working on it way before it starts shooting. We were having conversations with the filmmakers (early on) and we talked about certain things in general terms. In our first meeting with Judy Craymer, who conceived and produced the stage show, and her producing partner on the movie Gary Goetzman, we said that we intended (to) use a film version of the iconic image of the bride from the show as the one-sheet. We didn't come to an absolute decision about it there, but in negotiations we actually reserved the right to use that."

Typically, he pointed out, that's a very complicated point to resolve in negotiations because "actors are all tied to each other and you have to feature one if you feature the other. But we actually carved it out in the agreements with the actors, including Streep and Brosnan, who obviously had to agree to it, that we could simply feature Amanda Seyfried as the bride in a movie version of the stage image. That image of her on the one-sheet with the bright blue sea and the sun reflecting off it behind her and the look of pure joy on her face has been a huge access point for a very wide audience. It's just an easy choice -- like 'That movie looks like fun. I want to go see that.'"

ABBA's music was another key factor in selling the movie: "Many people know of ABBA. Fewer people know the specifics of ABBA. If you ask them, 'What songs by ABBA do you like?' maybe they can name 'Dancing Queen.' But if you play the songs for them they'll go, 'I didn't know that was ABBA.' The genius of the stage play was to (use) probably 16 songs in the show and most people would know 10 or 11 of them once they start (singing). So that was a great thing to have to work with.

"Usually, when you make trailers and TV spots you're borrowing bits of music from other film scores or things you compose specifically for the rhythm of the piece, but all of our pieces were constructed around these pop classics and chosen so they would trigger an emotional response from the audience."

Universal had its first teaser trailer for "Mamma" playing as early as last December with the dramatic musical "Sweeney Todd." "Our regular trailer was on (such other films as) 'Baby Mama,' 'Made of Honor,' 'What Happens in Vegas' and 'Sex and the City,'" Egan said. "When we had our full 2:30 trailer we bought TV media and played the entire trailer during the second night of the premiere of 'Dancing With the Stars' on March 18."

"Mamma" should benefit from good word of mouth now and there's still plenty of summer playing time for it to enjoy. "To generalize, an older audience typically takes longer (to see a film)," Egan pointed out. "They don't run out the first weekend, which is why we put it here and why we expect we'll have a long run. In fact, with what happened in terms of the exit polls and the definite recommend, we are very, very optimistic about where we'll end up."

"Mamma," by the way, is the seventh hit Universal has fielded since this spring, following "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "Baby Mama," (Rogue Pictures') "The Strangers," "The Incredible Hulk," "Wanted" and "Hellboy II: The Golden Army." At this point, Egan noted, Universal is 37% ahead of its record-setting 2007 domestic gross and 86% ahead of its '07 international boxoffice.

That momentum should continue with the studio's next release "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," directed by Rob Cohen and starring Brendan Frasier and Jet Li, opening Aug 1. Looking ahead, a number of Universal's fourth quarter titles are already on my eager-to-see list -- including "Changeling" in October, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich; "Frost/Nixon" in December, directed by Ron Howard and starring Frank Langella and Michael Sheen; and the animated "The Tale of Despereaux" in December with such voices as Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Kline.

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