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Spreading the word

Times Staff Writer

PRODUCER David T. Friendly started to believe “Little Miss Sunshine” might turn into a word-of-mouth hit when his college roommate’s parents and a doctor friend both sent him e-mail congratulations. “It’s a little unsettling when you get an e-mail from your dermatologist,” Friendly says, “asking about your per-screen averages.”

Unsettling, perhaps. And also the wave of the future.

Recommendations from friends and associates always have been a critical ingredient in building box-office momentum, just as negative word of mouth accelerates a middling movie’s downfall. Yet the speed at which such assessments are transmitted has never been so fast, nor the effect -- as “Little Miss Sunshine” is dramatizing -- so profound.

Movie studios once felt confident they had at least two weekends to sell as many movie tickets as possible before toxic buzz would undermine their multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns. Hollywood executives now say that the proliferation of movie-related e-mail, Internet blogs and text messaging has reduced that window to mere hours, as the quick decline of last weekend’s heavily promoted “Snakes on a Plane” proved

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“With most movies, you try to steal as much gross as you can until word of mouth catches up with you, which can be instant,” says John Lesher, the head of Paramount’s specialty division, which has one of the year’s strongest word-of-mouth performers in the global-warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

The life cycle of a word-of-mouth movie depends on its ability to ride a wave of critical success into more and more theaters, the inverse of the typical big summer movie that comes out instantly in thousands of theaters and often vanishes in a couple of weeks. Unlike special-effects-laden star vehicles, word-of-mouth releases often cost a fraction of the typical summer movie and have much smaller marketing budgets. They consequently can have a huge return on investment, as opposed to Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible III,” which was essentially a break-even movie.

“Little Miss Sunshine” began playing in seven theaters on July 26. The movie moved into wider national release last weekend and is now playing in 691 theaters, including some in such cities as San Antonio and Omaha. It already has eclipsed a raft of more heavily marketed summer movies that enjoyed few reviewer and audience recommendations.

The tale of an unconventional family racing across the Southwest to make a kiddie beauty pageant, “Little Miss Sunshine” has thus far grossed $13.4 million, earning the highest per-theater average among all of the weekend’s Top 10 films. The road movie will more than double its release this weekend, moving into 1,400 locations.

Twenty years ago, the top box-office hits averaged taking in only 12% of their total theatrical returns on their opening weekends. So far this year, first-weekend sales make up nearly a third of total sales, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Although the percentage of total tickets sold in the first weekend is more modest for highbrow releases, there’s no doubt sales for those films can accelerate faster than ever.

The wrong kind of word of mouth can be devastating. When Sony released “Monster House” earlier this summer, the animated movie collected some of the season’s best reviews and opened to a respectable $22.2 million. But in its second weekend, the film slipped nearly 48%. Sony believes the sharp drop-off was largely attributable to parents’ telling other parents that “Monster House” was too intense for small children. Thanks to that don’t-dare-take-your-6-year-old advice, the film collapsed more than 40% the next three weekends, and was soon history.

“Instant communications technology has completely changed the role of word of mouth,” says Nancy Utley, chief operating officer for “Little Miss Sunshine” distributor Fox Searchlight. “Word of mouth used to be confined to cities. Now, thanks to e-mail, it crosses continents. It’s revolutionized what word of mouth means.” Fox Searchlight certainly has helped magnify the film’s profile with progressively ubiquitous ads and promotions featuring a bright yellow color scheme.

In a recent Los Angeles Times poll on the moviegoing habits of teens and young adults, 38% of those surveyed said they share their opinions about a movie during or right after the film or on the same day. That kind of immediate national consensus spelled a quick finish to a number of recent movies that were released without being shown to film reviewers, including “Zoom” and “Pulse.”

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But what’s bad news for these middlebrow duds may be a boon to movie lovers. Since word of mouth helps good movies while punishing weaker ones, it may result in a new Hollywood emphasis on playability -- a film’s intrinsic quality -- instead of marketability, the easy sales hooks that yield so many forgettable sequels and remakes. “It’s kind of like a return to the 1970s,” says Jeff Blake, the vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, “when word of mouth meant everything.”

Of course, playability hardly comes easily. An effective word-of-mouth effort requires hours of unglamorous work staging screenings for groups such as the Boys Club, the Sierra Club and AARP, and creative, unconventional thinking, like dragging Al Gore to meet with executives at Wal-Mart to secure better placement for the film’s DVD.

One glimpse of movies in the works -- “Shrek the Third,” “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” “Rush Hour 3,” “Ocean’s Thirteen” -- also shows that studios are as interested in marketability as originality. But if there’s one thing Hollywood loves more than anything, it’s fat profit margins, and although some sequels make handfuls of money, they invariably cost a fortune to produce and an almost equal sum to market.

Although Fox Searchlight won’t predict how many tickets “Little Miss Sunshine” may eventually sell, the company has run internal comparisons to several recent word-of-mouth successes and has found that the comedy is outpacing the breakouts “March of the Penguins,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Garden State” and “The Full Monty.”

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People who worked on “Little Miss Sunshine” say peer recommendations have even greater power these days because moviegoers are being turned off by the wall-to-wall marketing campaigns that accompany most studio releases.

“People seem to be saying that they’d rather have the court of public opinion help make their decisions about what to see rather than the marketing department,” says another of the film’s producers, Marc Turtletaub, who personally bankrolled the $8-million “Little Miss Sunshine,” which sold at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for a record $10.5 million. “There is also a satisfaction in discovering movies themselves, that you can come to the film rather than have the movie forced on you.”

It’s not just headline-making releases such as “Little Miss Sunshine” that are benefiting from so many friendly endorsements. One small movie would not even have received a theatrical deal had it not been for glowing audience reaction. After director Susan Seidelman and her mother, Florence, collaborated on “Boynton Beach Club,” a retirement home romantic comedy about widows, widowers and new beginnings, no one would sign on to distribute the movie, even after the film drew packed houses at film festivals.

“We had a film that audiences were telling us they liked, but still no buyer,” director Seidelman says. “We decided we weren’t going to give up.”

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So the filmmaker, her mother and several investors released the movie themselves in Florida and Palm Springs. Ticket buyers immediately queued up. “You would walk into delis and people were talking about it,” the director says. And they couldn’t have been doing that because of advertising, because it was nonexistent.” Pretty soon, Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions took notice, and are now slowly releasing the film across the country. To date, “Boynton Beach Club” has sold $1.4 million in tickets, but seems poised to gross much more.

Earlier this year, the Al Gore documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” also benefited from a positive word of mouth, but with a little help from its distributor. The studio’s art film arm started the campaign with screenings for theater owners, in an effort not only to build word of mouth but also to show that the film wasn’t agitprop.

“Frankly, this is a movie where the less we spent, the better we did,” said Paramount Vantage’s head Lesher.

Strong word of mouth perpetuates itself.

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Warner Independent Pictures launched an intensive word-of-mouth effort in support of last year’s “March of the Penguins.” As the film’s positive reactions mushroomed, Warner Independent crafted new advertisements featuring moviegoers streaming out of the multiplex. “There’s nothing like seeing kids coming out of a theater looking excited,” says the division’s marketing head, Laura Kim. “March of the Penguins” ultimately grossed $77.4 million in domestic theaters.

But perhaps the largest beneficiary of moviegoer recommendations was the 2002 film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which took in $241.4 million domestically.

“If people know your movie is in theaters, word of mouth is great,” says “Greek Wedding” producer Gary Goetzman, who traveled the country for months promoting the film. “It always wins.”


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