Leave it to the "Basterds" to break the rules.
During a season when studios have become all but convinced that audiences are losing interest in big-name movie stars and R-rated adult fare, perhaps it was appropriate that the end of summer would offer a surprise hit that embodied both those qualities.
"Inglourious Basterds," featuring Brad Pitt among an ensemble cast, earned $38 million at the box office this weekend in the U.S. and Canada, according to domestic distributor Weinstein Co., far exceeding expectations by drawing a fairly diverse audience without alienating director Quentin Tarantino's core fan base of men in their 20s and early 30s.
The same occurred overseas, where Universal Pictures opened the film in 22 territories, including Germany, France, Britain and Australia, to a strong $27.5 million.
It's not the only movie this summer to open significantly stronger than pre-release polling had indicated. That list includes Warner Bros.' June release "The Hangover" and last weekend's "District 9" from Sony Pictures. But "Inglourious Basterds" certainly had the most at stake -- around $70 million in production spending split between Weinstein Co., which hasn't had a major release since December's "The Reader," and Universal, which has had a string of box-office underperformers this summer, including "Land of the Lost" and "Funny People."
The opening weekend numbers provided an unexpected ending to a months-long marketing campaign. Since the movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May to a mixed response, speculation has run rampant in Hollywood as to whether the movie would resemble Tarantino's 1994 breakout hit "Pulp Fiction," which earned $108 million domestically, or his 1997 follow-up "Jackie Brown," which grossed under $40 million.
Its premiere at the French festival initially exposed the fault line between loyal fans and vocal detractors. "Outside the cinema, reaction was moderate verging on the chilly," noted Xan Brooks, film critic for the Guardian UK.
Nonetheless, Tarantino and Pitt were in Cannes for a media blitz, serving to kick off Universal's worldwide marketing campaign that resulted in the highest grosses for a Tarantino film in nearly every major market where it played with the notable exception of Britain. "Once we had done the Cannes launch, the awareness level around the world dramatically spiked," said David Kosse, president of international distribution for Universal.
Domestically, meanwhile, Weinstein Co. has been crafting a carefully calibrated marketing campaign that attempted to let audiences know about Tarantino and Pitt's presence without relying too much on their names at a time when the ability of A-list stars to bring audiences into theaters seems to be diminishing, overshadowed by high-concept events like "Transformers."
Trailers, posters and TV spots focused more on the movie's most marketable concept -- an elite team of soldiers on a mission to kill Nazis -- and its over-the-top action.
"The concept was 'revenge fantasy,' just like 'Transformers' was a big battles with robots fantasy and 'G.I. Joe' was a ninja fantasy," said Chris Thalk, who runs the blog Movie Marketing Madness. "It came across as an action movie that just happened to star Brad Pitt and be directed by Quentin Tarantino."
That approach succeeded in activating the core audience for an R-rated action movie, which crosses over very nicely with Tarantino fans: 58% of moviegoers were male, according to exit polling, and 65% were between 18 and 34.
Weinstein Co. Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein said he was most proud, however, of the 42% of the audience that was female, a surprisingly large minority that he attributed to a last-minute push on TV shows, magazines and websites that appeal to women.
Universal did exit polling only in Britain, where the movie's male/female split was similar. Kosse attributed the attraction of women in part to a marketing campaign that focused a bit less on the movie's violence and more on its humor.
European audiences also got a much bigger publicity presence from costars Christoph Waltz, who's Austrian, and German native Diane Kruger. The two even did their own voice-overs for versions dubbed into German and French.
In a particularly surprising twist, however, there was much higher than usual demand to see the movie in English. Twenty-eight theaters in Germany, four times the typical number, showed the so-called "original version" that's the same shown in the United States, indicating that audiences perhaps wanted to hear Tarantino's celebrated dialogue in its original language or experience the movie, which features characters speaking German and French, from the perspective of its American protagonists.
"Those original versions were massive," Kosse said. "We were at the limit of breaking records with them."
Stateside, it's no surprise, of course, that Tarantino's traditional demographic group liked the movie best. Men in the U.S. gave the movie an A-minus, according to market research firm CinemaScore, while those under 25 gave it an A and between 25 and 34 an A-minus. But women graded it B-plus and the small minority over 50, under 16% according to exit polls, rated it a B.
Critics, meanwhile, were polarized, either bowled over or totally underwhelmed, by "Basterds' " ultra-violence, revisionist history and long scenes with baroque dialogue.
In the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert praised "Basterds" as "a big, bold, audacious war movie that will annoy some, startle others and demonstrate once again that he's the real thing, a director of quixotic delights."
The Village Voice's J. Hoberman called the film "a consummate Hollywood entertainment -- rich in fantasy and blithely amoral."
But other critics found the movie's historical fantasia hard to accept. " 'Inglourious Basterds' is not boring," cautioned the New Yorker's David Denby, "but it's ridiculous and appallingly insensitive." The Times' Kenneth Turan called the 2-hour, 32-minute action-drama "unforgivably leisurely, almost glacial."
But in the age of Twitter and Facebook, it seems that audience buzz is what matters most and Weinstein Co. is intent on using it, along with the positive reviews it can highlight, to turn "Inglourious Basterds" into a long-running hit by transforming public perception of it from a bloody-revenge tale to a highbrow drama on the way to the list of 10 Academy Award best picture nominees.
"We've got to do that changeover," Weinstein said. "An adult audience is the one that will really sustain us."
Times staff writer Chris Lee contributed to this report.