There's spirited debate about whether the ancient Maya calendar really predicts much of anything, particularly the world's end in three years. But there's little argument in Hollywood about the accuracy of an even more significant doomsday forecast: "2012" is going to be a blockbuster.
Ever since director Roland Emmerich's apocalyptic thriller landed on pre-release audience surveys last Thursday, "2012" and its positive prospects have become a hot topic among movie marketing executives. Although the Sony Pictures release doesn't premiere until Nov. 13, moviegoer attention already is running way ahead of "A Christmas Carol," which opens a week earlier and looks to be a hit in its own right, and narrowly better than Nov. 20's "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," one of the year's most anticipated sequels.
Given not only how aware audiences are of "2012" but also how much "definite interest" they have in actually buying tickets, it's possible that the John Cusack-led film could deliver the biggest opening weekend ever for Emmerich, whose cinematic specialty is day-of-reckoning disaster dramas.
Five years ago, the director's "The Day After Tomorrow" premiered to ticket sales of $68.7 million, topping his previous best first weekend set by 1996's "Independence Day," which grossed $50.2 million in its opening. The moviegoer survey data connected to "2012" suggest the movie might approach the premieres of 2007's "I Am Legend" ($77.2 million) and this April's "Fast & Furious" ($70.9 million).
Even though Emmerich's a favorite target for movie critics, with the exception of last year's underachiever "10,000 B.C.," all of his last five movies have grossed more than $100 million in their domestic runs.
In addition to selling "2012" with a trailer and television spots filled with spectacular devastation (one notable sequence has a tsunami-surfing aircraft carrier taking out the White House), Sony has hardly discouraged potential ticket-buyers from confusing fiction and fact, conflating the movie's made-up premise with historical portents or scientific possibilities. There is even a week-of-release Discovery Channel special tied to "2012" that knocks down -- but doesn't quite bury -- the film's underlying concept.
"Mankind's earliest civilization warned us," the text in one Sony trailer cautions, "this day would come." Reads one current billboard: "We were warned." And the notice for the Earth's catastrophic "crust displacement" is mighty specific in the movie: Dec. 21, 2012.
Along the same lines, just as the novel and movie "The Da Vinci Code" (also a Sony production) were promoted by emphasizing links between storytelling fantasy and spiritual beliefs, the "2012" campaign -- like the movie itself -- has taken advantage of religion-inspired prophesies. The advertising materials make clear that even if the world is ending, there's a Noah's Ark about to pull up anchor. After all, Sony ultimately has to sell "2012's" survival story, as no one will pay $10 to see mankind annihilated.
But it's not just Christian fables. "The Mayans warned us," read the message on posters at this year's Comic-Con International Convention in San Diego that were purportedly placed by a made-up entity called the Institute for Human Continuity, and not Sony (wink wink).
CNN, as seen in one "2012" trailer clip, has given Lou Dobbs a day off from patrolling the border to run headlines over a crowd at Mecca saying that "Preachers Claim End of the World Imminent" and "Across the Globe Millions Gather in Prayer." There are as many shots of alarmed religious leaders in the film's teaser and first trailer as there are of Cusack's science-fiction-writing dad.
By some measures, the "2012" campaign follows the promotion used with the studio's "District 9," with its cryptic entreaties on bus benches to report non-human activity. In digital marketing parlance, it's called an alternate reality game, where it's not immediately clear who -- or what -- is behind the promotion.
There might be contests, websites and phone lines all aimed at creating mystery around -- and interest in -- an upcoming movie. It's not unlike what Paramount Pictures did around "Paranormal Activity," where the audience wasn't given specific clues about whether the story was real.
Sony says consumers understand the advertising is promoting a fictional film, and even a cursory glance at the websites associated with the movie reveal that Sony is behind not only the Institute for Human Continuity but also a jokey end-of-the-world blog, www.thisistheend.com. Indeed, at the top of the "2012"-related websites you'll find the text, "Part of the '2012' movie experience."
Yet a review of some of the tens of thousands of comments posted by the millions of interested parties who have watched the "2012" trailer on YouTube suggest a handful of people still believes it's not all Hollywood hokum.
"when this happens there will be 3 days of darkness on christmas day it will be over the sun will stablize the sun is born again on these 3 days of darkness the 12 planets will be alligned," reads one post in the mangled syntax typical of Internet chatter.
Opined another: "2012 is real. NASA announced they found something in 1983 and two weeks alter said ity was a mistake. It wasnt. This is the what theyre hiding with the global chemtrails every day. it is causing all the recent quakes and volcanos and is why the govt is now classifying all asteroid events secret."
Of course, those spelling-challenged commentators could very well be Sony secretaries urged by their marketing bosses to feed the prophesy flames.
If so, they're not doing half-bad.