A little more than a year ago, the makers of "Zookeeper" took the Kevin James comedy to the AMC Ontario Mills 30 multiplex for a test screening. The talking-animals film had been scheduled to be released in October 2010, but the Sony Pictures brass were so electrified by the audience feedback — the marks from kids were so good that one executive thought that the data must be wrong and needed to be recalculated — that the studio decided to move "Zookeeper" into the heart of this summer's box-office battle.
Sony had other reasons to shift "Zookeeper" to July. With the next "Spider-Man" movie delayed until summer 2012, the studio was short on big releases for the season. "It plays like a big, big summer movie," Rory Bruer, Sony's distribution president, said of "Zookeeper" at the time of the release-date switch. "And this move is all about opportunity."
But now that summer's here, that window of opportunity may be narrower than it seemed.
"Zookeeper" is opening this Friday, the weekend after Paramount's third "Transformers" blockbuster and a week before Warner Bros.' final "Harry Potter" film, both rated PG-13. The PG-rated, $80-million "Zookeeper," which Sony co-financed with MGM, is struggling to attract audience interest, pre-release surveys show.
The only other new movie in wide release this weekend, Warner Bros.' R-rated comedy "Horrible Bosses," looks poised to deliver better opening returns than "Zookeeper" by a comfortable margin.
Hollywood's polling, though, has been a bit unreliable this summer: Surveys suggested that Sony's "Bad Teacher," Disney's "Cars 2," Paramount's "Super 8" and Universal's "Bridesmaids" all would do less business on their opening weekends than they actually did. Sony executives declined to comment for this article, but some at the studio are quietly hoping that Hollywood's surveys are faulty again.
The most recent audience surveys show negligible interest in "Zookeeper" from any demographic group aside from very young children. But even if "Zookeeper" grosses less than $20 million in its premiere weekend, some believe the film could play to relatively full houses for weeks afterward if the word of mouth is good.
A mediocre opening for the film would be a setback for James, the veteran of CBS' "The King of Queens" whose last Sony movie, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," did surprisingly big business in 2009. Made for about $26 million, "Paul Blart" cast James as a security guard who foils a heist at a New Jersey shopping center.
The film debuted to three-day returns of $31.8 million over the Presidents Day weekend and by the time all the North American tickets were sold, had grossed $146.3 million — more than "Taken," "Angels & Demons," "Terminator Salvation" or "Inglourious Basterds" made in domestic release. In 2010, James costarred with Adam Sandler in "Grown Ups," which grossed $162 million domestically, but this January's "The Dilemma," where James played opposite Vince Vaughn, was a washout, taking in just $48.5 million.
At the start of "Zookeeper," James' character, Griffin Keyes (who is, of course, a zookeeper), is dumped by his fiancée as he's proposing to her. He then starts taking romantic advice from some unusual therapists — the caged creatures he cares for, voiced by Sandler (a monkey), Sylvester Stallone (a lion) and directors Judd Apatow (an elephant) and Jon Favreau (a bear). Before long, Keyes is the king of the dating game jungle.
At a Las Vegas convention of movie theater owners this spring, Sony showcased "Zookeeper" by building a small petting zoo inside Caesars Palace and screened the film at the Colosseum, the theater that normally hosts Celine Dion. Reaction was largely positive, with several theater owners predicting that the movie would be one of the summer's surprise hits.
But "Zookeeper" never really gathered much momentum afterward. People who worked on the film say that when talking animals appear in a film's previews, the movie can look as if it's aimed at a younger audience than it really is. Sony couldn't easily sell the film's cameo voices, and by pitching too much of the romantic comedy story, the studio risked alienating families. And just because James can sell tickets in January — as he did with "Paul Blart" — doesn't mean he can do the same in July.
At the same time, the definition of "family entertainment" seems to be rapidly evolving. Anybody who's been in a multiplex lately knows that many parents have been taking their preteen children to see grown-up fare like "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," rated PG-13 for "sci-fi action violence, mayhem and destruction and for language, some sexuality and innuendo."
Even if "Zookeeper" can establish a small toehold this weekend, it faces "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2" in a week. Audience surveys hint that the final movie about the boy wizard could come close to the opening weekend record, currently held by 2008's "The Dark Knight" at $158.4 million.
Cleaning up after the animals, it seems, may be the least of Kevin James' problems.