Sony Is Finding Out That Size of Prediction Matters

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Has Sony Pictures become a victim of its own "size matters" efforts to successfully launch "Godzilla"? Possibly, given that second weekend ticket sales plummeted to an estimated $18 million on a record 3,310 screens, a precipitous drop of almost 60%.

The film's cumulative total is just under $100 million in less than two weeks, generally a sign of a major hit. But few films have had the advance hoopla of "Godzilla," and expectations were that the film would top the record-holder, "The Lost World," the "Jurassic Park" sequel that made more than $90 million in just four days over Memorial Day weekend last year.

"I'll be the first to admit that maybe we were too aggressive in promoting the film in some ways," one Sony insider said defensively. "But that still doesn't explain the constant and mean-spirited attention that's been directed at the movie since it opened."

And Robert Levin, Sony's president of worldwide marketing, had this question: "At what point do you move from being a well-marketed movie to the press saying you've over-hyped the movie?"

In trying to protect its $120 million investment, Sony mounted a carefully orchestrated ad campaign over a period of months, having staked the Memorial Day weekend for "Godzilla" a year in advance. Levin says he was besieged by story requests about the film's selling strategy. "The press responded to the marketing, which raised their expectations," he said. "Then they reported on their own expectations."

That shifted the discussion for the moviegoing public as well. "What do you do when you have the man in the street discussing in casual conversation how disappointed he was in the business 'Godzilla' did rather than the movie?" Levin asked.

Still, Sony is probably cursing the day someone thought up the clever ad catch-phrase "size matters," which was splashed on billboards around the country and seemed to dare both the public and the media to break out their yardsticks. When Sony booked "Godzilla" onto a record 7,300-plus screens and said it wanted (although it didn't get) an unprecedented percentage of first-week ticket sales from theaters, that further raised the bar.

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By contrast, "Deep Impact," a relatively unheralded Paramount/DreamWorks' arrival that exceeded expectations, gave the public the impression that it had discovered the movie (despite its own rather costly launch). As it turns out, "Deep Impact" was the movie that kick-started the summer season on May 8, when it grossed more than $40 million its opening weekend.

"Deep Impact" was supposed to take it on the chin when "Godzilla" debuted. But that didn't happen. Fourth weekend on "Deep Impact" was estimated to be a still-strong $10.1 million on 3,280 screens. With $112 million in its first month, "Deep Impact" could conceivably out-gross "Godzilla."

By the end of the Memorial Day weekend, the press was writing an epitaph on "Godzilla," which grossed $55.7 million over the weekend (and about $74 million in its first six days), enough to rank it among the top 10 best openings of all time. But in an era when "Titanic" is churning its way toward a $2 billion worldwide gross, somehow that manages to seem a disappointment.

Another competing executive points out that "Godzilla" will still rack up a substantial gross in the U.S. and bring in at least 1 1/2 to twice as much overseas, which could mean as much as $300 million worldwide.

"That's still blockbuster business," the executive said. "Still, they're probably wishing they'd done a little less bragging."

Howard Lichtman, senior vice president of the Cineplex Odeon theater chain, was pleased with the results of "Godzilla's" first week. "Let's put it into perspective. It's like when people complain that the latest Disney animated film didn't gross $200 million, it only grossed $150 million. Well, how many movies gross $150 million?"

But it now looks like "Godzilla" will have to struggle to get to $150 million in the U.S., and that will impact not only on the film's ancillary sales but on summer box office as a whole.

Looking back, "Lost World" was a barrier "Godzilla" was unlikely to cross. For one thing, "Lost" was a sequel to what was then the biggest-grossing movie ever, "Jurassic Park" ("Titanic" recently surpassed it).

In the weeks prior to "Godzilla's" debut, industry tracking reports on interest in the film indicated that "Godzilla" was not attracting a demographic cross-section but primarily young males. While that is a crucial segment of the market, it's not enough to take the film up into record-breaking territory.

Exit polls indicated that because of its PG-13 rating, the blood 'n' guts kid core audience for "Godzilla" found it too tame, according to Levin, but teenagers and family audiences responded favorably. Sony fine-tuned its second week marketing strategy, giving the film a more playful look. And, perhaps because of this, Sony distribution chief Jeff Blake says "Godzilla" jumped 80% from Friday to Saturday, meaning that the younger audience is still going to see it.

But "Godzilla" will probably not attract other audiences in big enough numbers to bring its grosses into the stratosphere. The severity of the "Godzilla" backlash has even Sony's competitors concerned. Tomorrow it could be their turn at the wheel with a high-profile, super-expensive movie.

"Off the record? They're in trouble," says a rival studio executive.

Carmike Cinema, which operates 520 theaters in 36 states, is already blaming "Godzilla" for its weaker-than-expected earnings this quarter. This is because other studios expected "Godzilla" to decimate the competition over Memorial Day, so they moved several other prime releases back several weeks, losing valuable summer playing time.

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Disney/Touchstone and Fox counter-programmed with "The Horse Whisperer" and "Bulworth," respectively, in an attempt to appeal to the adult audience. "Horse Whisperer," in its third weekend, did $7.4 million on 2,189 screens for $43.5 million to date. "Bulworth's" second weekend took in $5.1 million for only $17.5 million to date.

And the best Universal could offer was the disastrous "'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," which in its second weekend dropped to $1.7 million for a disappointing $7.2 million total to date.

So convinced were the other studios of "Godzilla's" potential that they released little up against its second weekend. As it turned out, Fox wisely tossed in "Hope Floats," the relatively unheralded Sandra Bullock romantic drama. Despite generally negative reviews, "Hope" floated like a butterfly to $14.5 million on 2,347 screens. Fox reports that the heavily female audience--older and younger--came out in droves and liked what they saw, which means the movie may even have legs.

"Hope" buoyed overall figures for the last weekend in May, which were up slightly from the comparable period last year according to the industry tracking service Exhibitor Relations. The coming weekend, however, boasts two potential hits, Warners' sophisticated thriller, "A Perfect Murder," starring Michael Douglas, and the highly anticipated "The Truman Show," starring Jim Carrey.

Attention is already turning away from "Godzilla" to other putative summer blockbusters, including the other asteroid-hits-Earth movie, Disney's $130 million "Armageddon," starring Bruce Willis. It opens July 1.

Other openings over the weekend included "I Got the Hook-up," which grossed $3.3 million on only 655 screens and $4.4 million since its Wednesday debut; "Almost Heroes," starring the late Chris Farley, with a droopy $2.8 million on 2,048 screens; and Whit Stillman's "The Last Days of Disco" from Gramercy Pictures, which grossed a strong $280,309 in 22 theaters.

Rounding out the Top 10 were "The Quest for Camelot," with $2.3 million over the weekend and only $17 million to date, and the unstoppable "Titanic" with $1.7 million and just under $580 million in the till.

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