Word of Mouth: ‘Eat Pray Love’ must draw more than just the book’s fans

Fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love” have bought some 8 million copies of the magazine writer’s chronicle of self-discovery, love and forgiveness. And if everyone who has read the bestselling book comes to see the movie, Sony Pictures will still have a lot of work to do.

The economics of book publishing and Hollywood are as dissimilar as a pinewood derby and the Indianapolis 500. Only a handful of books print more than 1 million copies, but for a movie to become a runaway blockbuster, its studio needs to sell tens of millions of tickets. Assuming an average ticket price of about $7.88 (according to the National Assn. of Theater Owners), the year’s top-grossing film, “Toy Story 3,” has generated about 50 million domestic admissions.

Sony, which is releasing its adaptation of Gilbert’s book on Friday, and the film’s makers are betting that “Eat Pray Love” will appeal to an audience far broader than the middle-aged women who were the core audience for her memoir. It’s a challenge that other studios, producers, directors and writers have faced when they try to turn well-liked women’s books — particularly novels from the hugely popular Nicholas Sparks — into feature films.

“Eat Pray Love” faces tough competition. Lionsgate’s action movie “The Expendables,” also opening Friday, is sparking unexpectedly broad interest from men and older boys, and should easily win the weekend. As would be expected, “Eat Pray Love” is drawing strong attention from women 30 and older, but the film is surprisingly strong among women in their 20s and is even drawing some limited interest from teenage girls. Sony hopes that the film will be greeted by good reviews and strong word of mouth, and potentially play for many weeks in the box-office Top 10, as was the case with the studio’s adaptation of “Julie & Julia” almost exactly a year ago.

A glimpse at Sony’s “Eat Pray Love” marketing strategy illustrates how the studio is trying to expand the movie’s audience beyond the book’s readers. The film’s early trailer played in heavy rotation with May’s “Sex and the City 2,” but then Sony pushed its next trailer with June’s much younger-appealing “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.” Sony has paid to put an “Eat Pray Love” preview on bookseller websites such as Amazon, but the studio is also spending aggressively on older teen-oriented radio stations and television shows such as “Jersey Shore,” MTV’s highly rated reality show about a band of scarcely literate twentysomethings.

When “Eat Pray Love” was cast, its makers intentionally chose from a broad range of actors, hoping each performer would help deliver distinct followers. In addition to hiring the 42-year-old Julia Roberts to play Gilbert, director Ryan Murphy ( “Glee”) and producer Dede Gardner ( “The Time Traveler’s Wife”) cast the 32-year-old James Franco as actor/yogi David Piccolo, the 63-year-old Richard Jenkins as the spiritual advisor Richard from Texas, and the 41-year-old Spanish actor Javier Bardem as Gilbert’s potential love interest, Felipe, who similarly is recovering from a divorce.

“You hope that each of them brings another segment of the audience,” Gardner says.

Gardner says the film is reflective not only of the cast but also the people behind the camera, including Murphy and cinematographer Robert Richardson ( an Oscar winner for “The Aviator” and “JFK”). “Everyday, people come together in large numbers and kind of pour in” their personal experiences, Gardner says of making the movie.

Like many genres, women-oriented movies are often underestimated by studio executives, frequently delivering outsized returns. “They keep being surprised, ‘Oh, my God, we can make movies for women and make money,’ ” says Liz Tuccillo, co-author of the advice book “He’s Just Not That Into You” (made into a 2009 feature that grossed $94 million in North American theaters) and author of the novel “How to Be Single,” now being developed into a feature film. “Now, it’s no longer a surprise.”

Six years ago, Sparks’ “The Notebook” grossed more than $81 million in domestic release, and the author’s “Dear John” did nearly as well earlier this year. Relativity Media, which financed “Dear John,” recently paid a small fortune (reported at a minimum of $2 million) for movie rights to Sparks’ forthcoming novel “Safe Haven.”

“It’s a hungry demographic who does not get as much as they want,” says Tucker Tooley, Relativity’s worldwide production president and an executive producer on “Dear John” and “Safe Haven.” “Nicholas is a real brand in this space, and he has consistently inspired good movies with his material.” Even though “Dear John” starred the younger actors Channing Tatum (30) and Amanda Seyfried (24), the movie also played to older audiences, Tooley says. “It certainly grew beyond younger females,” he says, adding that “Safe Haven” should have even broader appeal.

When some books are adapted into movies, readers will torch the film if it varies too much from the source material: Heaven forbid Warner Bros. used the wrong spell at the wrong time in one of its " Harry Potter” films. But when it comes to women’s books, the audience appears much more forgiving about departures both small and profound.

Tuccillo and Greg Behrendt’s “He’s Just Not That Into You,” like “Eat Pray Love,” was a nonfiction work turned into a fictionalized narrative. The endings of “Dear John” and “The Notebook” were changed dramatically.

Adam Shankman, the director of 2002’s adaptation of Sparks’ “A Walk to Remember,” changed not only the film’s time setting, but also toned down its Christian themes and some of the book’s more melodramatic moments. “You have to make sure it’s not too schmaltzy,” says Jennifer Gibgot, Shankman’s producing partner and a producer with him on March’s “The Last Song,” which grossed $63 million.

Says Shankman: “You have to make sure it’s relevant to a contemporary audience. If you make a good movie, the audience will forgive you. The fans of romance give you much more latitude.”