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Opening-Weekend Madness

Jonathan Bing and Dade Hayes are editors at Variety. This is adapted from "Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became a National Obsession," just published by Miramax Books.

The Ontario Mills mall, erected in 1996 on a patch of scrub desert crisscrossed by rail lines, airport runways and two interstate freeways, is Hollywood’s new Main Street.

The mall’s two megaplexes, the AMC Ontario Mills 30 and Regal’s Ontario Palace 22, are the outgrowth of the opening weekend box office frenzy that has warped American movies, infecting producers with blockbusteritis and marginalizing films that can’t “open wide.”

With showtimes every 20 minutes, a top-grossing release at Ontario Mills will vacuum up hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single weekend. Those high-volume ticket sales are manna for the Hollywood studios, and they’ve helped make the mall a prototype for new shopping and entertainment centers proliferating across exurban America.

But they haven’t exactly created a bonanza of options for film buffs. The mall is a homogenous mass of chains, with movies to match. On Oct. 1, DreamWorks’ “Shark Tale” opened. It played on 10 screens at the Ontario Mills megaplexes, generating an outsized share of the film’s $47.6-million opening weekend box office gross. David O. Russell’s adventurous “I (Heart) Huckabees,” also released on Oct. 1, wasn’t playing anywhere in Ontario. You had to travel some 40 miles west to Hollywood to see it.

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The Ontario effect began on Dec. 13, 1996, when the AMC 30, America’s first 30-screen movie theater, opened. It was a labor of love for AMC Chairman Stan Durwood, the film exhibitor credited with inventing the multiplex. Three months later, Durwood’s archrival, Jim Edwards, opened the Palace 22 a few hundred yards away. “I had to teach you a lesson,” Edwards told Durwood at the time.

Movie executives initially said the rival megaplexes couldn’t survive, that there weren’t enough moviegoers to go around. Only three studios booked their films simultaneously into both venues (today almost all of them do). In March 1997, the head of the National Assn. of Theater Owners issued an ominous commandment at ShoWest, the annual exhibitors convention: “Thou shalt not Ontario each other!”

But the megaplexes thrived, buttressed by population growth and the widespread mallification of the Inland Empire. And the emphasis on opening weekend mushroomed along with them.

In 1997, a $100-million weekend was unthinkable. Now it’s the target for wannabe blockbusters, especially in the summer. And it’s achievable. Twenty-one million people a year visit Ontario Mills, and more than a dozen “Mills” malls have gone up across the U.S. -- delivering what the developers call “shoppertainment, including hundreds of movie screens.” And that doesn’t count all the other megaplex sites.

For Hollywood, it’s a smash-and-grab business. Last summer, for example, 18 films opened wide (in an average of 3,411 theaters nationwide), but their shelf life was short. Ticket sales typically drop more than 50% after opening weekend.

But then most blockbusters aren’t built to last. They are shallow star vehicles, with cardboard characters and market-tested scripts, buoyed by fast-food tie-ins, video games and busloads of merchandise. They don’t cultivate an audience; they exploit the combustible confluence of star power, catchy concepts and massive studio advertising budgets. They are designed to generate maximum profits before word of mouth takes hold.

It’s no accident that the Ontario Mills AMC complex resembles an airport terminal, with 30 journeys beginning at 30 different times. It pumps dollars into the economy and the pockets of executives and stars. But it has fostered moviedom’s bad trip -- in which creating an opening-weekend splash means more than telling stories that matter.


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