CANNES, France -- The thunderous roar from thousands of fans when Harrison Ford arrived at the "Indiana Jones" premiere at the Cannes Film Festival could be heard three blocks from the Grand Theatre Lumiere. The test now is whether the fourth film in Steven Spielberg's adventure series will show the same resonance at the multiplex.
There is no doubt that "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" will enjoy one of the year's biggest movie openings following its stateside release today. Even typically cautious distributor Paramount Pictures privately acknowledges that the film should gross as much as $150 million domestically in its first five days in theaters.
While a handful of confident box-office prognosticators interviewed here say the initial returns could be far greater -- as much as $180 million -- the true measure of the film's ultimate success will not be told over the Memorial Day weekend. And that's why Paramount is making a huge "Indy" push aimed at kids.
Hollywood's big studios have mastered, particularly in recent years, the art of the blockbuster opening, those carpet-bombing marketing assaults that propel brand-name franchises into the box-office stratosphere. The three biggest three-day openings in movie history -- the third films in the "Spider-Man" and "Shrek" franchises and the second "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie -- all have landed in the last two years.
What the studios have not come as close to perfecting, though, is playability, a gauge of how much audiences really enjoy a particular film. And because "Indiana Jones" holds such robust interest among older moviegoers (who don't typically storm theaters on opening weekend), the fourth film's playability could become crucial.
No 'Da Vinci Code'
Critical reaction to the latest "Indy" installment, which was shown for the first time Sunday, has been respectful but not overwhelmingly glowing. Paramount was relieved that the film's Cannes screening didn't come near the catastrophic premiere of "The Da Vinci Code" at the French festival two years ago, in which the local audience was openly laughing at the film.
Paramount and the film's makers knew they were coming to the French Riviera with targets on their tuxedos. "I expect to have the whip turned on me," Ford said in a packed Cannes news conference following the first showing. "It's not unusual for something that is popular to be disdained by some people, and I fully expect it and I'm not really worried about it. I work for the people who pay to get in. They are my customers and my focus is on providing the best experience I can for those people."
As the "Da Vinci Code" screening proves, though, Cannes can be a deceptive benchmark. Despite the derision accompanying Ron Howard's 2006 movie, "The Da Vinci Code" was nevertheless a global blockbuster, grossing more than $750 million worldwide.
But like many blockbusters of recent years, "The Da Vinci Code" had a low multiple, the industry term for the ratio of a film's total take to its opening weekend. After premiering with $77.1 million in its first weekend, "The Da Vinci Code" had a total domestic gross of $217.5 million, or a relatively modest multiple of less than 3.
Truly satisfying movies have much better multiples, or "legs," as the assessment is also known in Hollywood. The first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, for example, debuted with $46.7 million in its first five days and ended up grossing $305 million, a multiple of more than 6.5. Movies with bad reviews and poor word of mouth have much worse multiples. This year's "Prom Night" opened with $20.8 million and will be lucky to top out at $45 million, a multiple of close to 2.
Please bring the tykes
"Indiana Jones' " long-term performance will not really hinge on repeat business. Teens, not surprisingly, are the ones with the spare time, money and brain cells to see a movie more than once, but almost always (with the exception of "Titanic") do so on a movie's opening weekend. And even Paramount knows "Indy" doesn't have the teen appeal of its "Iron Man."
Rather, the sustainability of the PG-13 rated "Indiana Jones" depends on how many parents will come with their kids. The last "Indiana Jones" movie arrived 19 years ago, meaning that core fans of the original three films now have expanding waistlines and thinning hair; Paramount's audience surveys show adults older than 45 are one of the film's strongest demographics.
If parents hire a sitter and come without their 2.2 kids, Paramount won't come close to having a long-playing hit. So to goose the film's awareness among children ages 8 to 18, Paramount spent all of April bombarding kid's television with "Indiana Jones" spots, following its sending Ford and costar Shia LaBeouf (who has huge youth appeal thanks to last summer's "Transformers") to Nickelodeon's "Kids' Choice Awards."
But most school-age kids know as much about Indiana Jones as they do about E.T.: very little. So in addition to its ads, Paramount and its partners have flooded toy stores with Indy diversions, including an extensive Lego line. The perfect scenario for Paramount will be if the ankle biters end up asking their parents to take them to the movie.
But other evidence to consider is the performance of two recent movies aimed at kids. The PG-rated "Speed Racer" was completely rejected by moviegoers, and last week's debut of the PG-rated "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" fell short of its projected opening.
Kids, in other words, haven't been flooding the multiplexes. And if they don't flock to "Indy," the film could come and go as fast as the hero's whip.