Hollywood has been betting for months that when “King Kong” hit theaters, the action epic would help reverse a nearly yearlong slide in movie admissions. Well, the rampaging 50-foot-tall ape finally has arrived, but like so many other recent movies, “King Kong” is not yet attracting stampedes of moviegoers.
Although writer-director Peter Jackson’s remake of the 1933 classic did sell an estimated $66.2 million in tickets in its first five days, the film’s opening receipts stood well below industry projections. Rival studios and show business prognosticators had said (and even hoped) that Universal Pictures’ “King Kong” might gross as much as $100 million in its first five days of release.
Total domestic sales for the three-hour-plus movie, which got a jump on the weekend with early Wednesday morning screenings, were almost exactly the take that “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” generated the previous weekend, in two fewer days.
Although “King Kong” was No. 1 at the box office, the unexpectedly sluggish opening adds to growing fears that U.S. audiences might be forsaking the multiplex: For the first time in more than 40 years, Hollywood by year’s end will have recorded declining attendance for three consecutive years.
In 2005, North American attendance will total about 1.4 billion tickets, down more than 6% from the previous year, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Total box-office receipts should be about $8.7 billion, down from $9.2 billion in 2004, according to Nielsen EDI Inc.
“This was one of the films that was supposed to help get the business back to last year’s levels, and clearly it didn’t happen,” Richard Greenfield, a media analyst with Fulcrum Global Partners, said of “King Kong.” “The bottom line is that this is a surprisingly low figure.”
Universal conceded that the film’s first day was unimpressive but said “King Kong” is nevertheless on track to be a blockbuster.
“The one thing we can say is that a geek fan base did not storm the gates,” said Marc Shmuger, Universal’s vice chairman. He said returns earlier in the week were hurt by the film’s long running time and cited faulty estimates. “I don’t think anyone who was prognosticating had the right model,” he said. Universal also believes that as more school-age children begin their winter holidays, they will start snapping up “King Kong” tickets.
“I’m incredibly encouraged by where we are right now,” Shmuger said Sunday, adding that positive word of mouth should make “King Kong” a top audience choice for weeks to come. “I couldn’t be more bullish.” Universal also stressed that in overseas theaters, “King Kong” grossed $80 million.
It will have to gross much more to turn a profit, given its $220 million price tag and tens of millions more spent on marketing. (Studios keep only about half of a film’s theatrical receipts, and a hefty slice of the “King Kong” proceeds will then go to Jackson and his team.)
“King Kong” carries all the possible elements for a sure-fire blockbuster: an Oscar-winning filmmaker coming off three “Lord of the Rings” smashes, breathtaking special effects for teens, a heart-wrenching story for adults, consistent rave reviews, and hardly any competition in theaters.
That’s why, when “King Kong’s” Wednesday ticket sales were so comparatively weak, executives across Hollywood spent hours on the telephone obsessing over the numbers. It’s something they’ve become accustomed to this year as one anticipated hit after another has received a lukewarm response from moviegoers.
Audiences turned up their noses at many of the industry’s attempts to cater to their whims. For adults, there were offerings by A-list directors such as Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” and Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man,” but those dramas struggled to connect. In an attempt to capture younger viewers, there were “The Lords of Dogtown” and “XXX: State of the Union,” which both fell short. “In Her Shoes,” considered to be a likely hit with women, wasn’t.
The industry’s soul-searching grew so profound that when summer fare such as “Stealth” and “The Island” did belly-flops at the box office, executives started asking themselves whether the action movie was dead.
Although no one can say for sure how the movies themselves may be contributing to declining admissions, other culprits include video games, cheap DVDs, too many commercials in movie theaters and the high cost of going out.
Despite all the usual lamentations that audiences crave new and original stories, many of the most popular movies of the year were remakes, sequels or adaptations (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and “The Longest Yard”).
Which explains, in part, why expectations were so robust for “King Kong.”
Audience surveys conducted by research firms such as National Research Group and internal studio projections suggested “King Kong” would open to packed houses.
After all, Christmas and summer are Hollywood’s two most important seasons, and often the time when highly anticipated movies open to eye-popping business. Last summer, “Spider-Man 2" grossed $88.2 million in its first weekend. In December 2003, Jackson’s final “Lord of the Rings” movie grossed $72.6 million in its debut.
Yet in “King Kong’s” first hours of release, ticket sales pointed in a different direction, with the film grossing $9.8 million on opening day.
To be sure, there are plenty of movies that have opened slowly and gone on to success. Last year, “The Polar Express” recorded unimpressive results in its first weekend, only to turn into one of 2004’s biggest hits and a holiday chestnut at Imax theaters. And “Titanic,” the all-time box office champion with a $600-million gross, barely beat the James Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies” in its first weekend of release.
“King Kong” faces a difficult weekend ahead; Christmas Eve business at the multiplex is slow, and Christmas Day falls on a Sunday.
What’s more, the tear-jerker faces competition from an array of lighter fare -- including Jim Carrey’s “Fun With Dick and Jane” and Steve Martin’s “Cheaper by the Dozen 2" -- debuting this week.
If Universal is counting on word of mouth to help sell a ton of “King Kong” tickets, it will need people like 25-year-old Victor Borachuk.
“It’s just one of those movies that you just kind of have to see,” he said as he was about to take his seat at the Vista theater on Sunset Boulevard this weekend. “There’s enough buzz to warrant me paying the price of a ticket.”
Unfortunately for the studio, Kayla Lopez, 14, of Long Beach, who was trying to figure out what to see at the Lakewood Center Mall theaters Friday night, won’t be among them.
Although she sees several movies each month, Lopez said “Kong Kong” holds no interest for her and her friends: “It’s just a big gorilla destroying a city.”
Times staff writers Claire Hoffman, Elaine Dutka, Robert W. Welkos and R. Kinsey Lowe contributed to this report.
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The year that was
The box office has been a disappointment in 2005, marking Hollywood’s third consecutive year with declining attendance. Here’s a look at the year’s highs and some of its lows:
*--* Top 5 Studio Sales* Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith Fox $380
Harry Potter / Goblet of Fire Warner Bros. 244
War of the Worlds Paramount 234
Wedding Crashers New Line 209
Charlie / Chocolate Factory Warner Bros. 206
*--* Disappointments Studio Sales Elizabethtown Paramount $27
Stealth Sony 32
Lords of Dogtown Sony 11
The Brothers Grimm Miramax 41
In Her Shoes Fox 33
*Domestic gross sales, in millions
Source: Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.