Fox is trying to make sure that "Knight and Day" doesn't come and go.
The News Corp.-owned studio, nervous about pre-release surveys that indicate the big-budget Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz movie could flop when it opens next week, is making a late dash to get moviegoers interested in the action-comedy picture about a female traveler who crosses paths with a male secret agent.
20th Century Fox has decided to show "sneak previews" of the movie at 494 theaters around the country Saturday, before its official Wednesday opening.
The move underscores the limited options available to a studio when last-minute research suggests a movie could go awry. Usually, when a film looks like it will open poorly, a studio will scrap and redesign the marketing campaign. But with only four days remaining before "Knight and Day" debuts in theaters, such a drastic measure would be prohibitively costly and cumbersome, especially at a time when studios are trying to keep a cap on spiraling marketing expenses.
Fox's decision to "sneak" "Knight and Day" is highly risky. If the buzz coming out of the weekend isn't favorable, the poor word of mouth could spread at the speed of Twitter and do even more damage to a picture suffering from what some in Hollywood say has been an ineffective marketing campaign.
Fox executives think it's worth the gambit, however, because audiences have responded favorably to the movie in test screenings.
It's clear that drastic action is needed to jump-start the picture's prospects. Polling of potential moviegoers indicates that "Knight and Day" could generate less than $20 million on its opening weekend in the U.S. and Canada, a dismal start for a picture that cost $117 million to produce, not to mention an embarrassment for marquee actors like Cruise and Diaz.
In the best-case scenario, positive word of mouth from Saturday will lift the movie when it opens nationally and provide it momentum going into the following weekend, when the Adam Sandler-Chris Rock comedy "Grown Ups," currently more anticipated by audiences in surveys, opens.
"We aren't exactly where we hoped we would be," Fox production President Emma Watts said of the current level of moviegoer interest in "Knight and Day." "But it's a great film. This is the kind of film that needs to be discovered, and I think it will be."
In a summer full of sequels and adaptations of "Iron Man," "Shrek," "Twilight" and "The Last Airbender," "Knight and Day" stands out as one of the only high-profile original films. Its only built-in marketing hook comes from its stars. At the same time, A-list names are becoming less effective in opening films, and Cruise is viewed warily by some in the public because of his widely publicized personal life.
In addition, Cruise and Diaz are not as popular with younger moviegoers, who often drive big opening weekends in the summer. Surveys indicate that audiences over 30 are most interested in "Knight and Day," particularly women. Among teenage and college-age males, the movie is barely registering, according to people who have seen the survey results.
Though Fox and its financial partners New Regency and Dune Entertainment have a lot riding on the movie, they mitigated their risk by paying Cruise a lower advance fee. People familiar with the matter said Cruise was paid $11 million upfront rather than the $20 million or more he has previously commanded. Nor is Cruise getting "first dollar gross," as has happened in the past, meaning he will not get a share of revenue until the movie's financiers recoup their investment.
A spokesman for Cruise did not reply to a request for comment.
"Knight and Day" is about a spy, played by Cruise, who meets a traveler played by Diaz in an airport and ends up drawing her into a deadly mission.
The complex plot has proved difficult for Fox to communicate in advertising. Some marketing material, such as billboards in which Cruise and Diaz are '60s-style white silhouettes, have focused on the film's light tone while some TV commercials emphasize the action.
"This is not as easy a sell as a sequel or a movie based on an existing property," said Fox domestic distribution President Bruce Snyder. "We feel our best tool is to get word of mouth out on it."
Fox executives are hopeful that "Knight and Day" will perform better overseas, particularly in Asia, where awareness of Cruise's personal life is low and action movies often perform well.
If the movie doesn't turn into a hit — which given its production and marketing expenses will need to reach about $250 million in worldwide ticket sales — it will be a blow to Fox, which has had a disappointing summer after its winter blockbuster "Avatar." Its last two releases, "The A-Team" and "Marmaduke," have both been weak box-office performers.
Perhaps the biggest effect, however, will be on Cruise himself, who last starred in an action movie in 2006 with "Mission: Impossible III." Since then, he has appeared only in the 2008 World War II drama "Valkyrie," which was critically drubbed but performed decently on a worldwide basis. (He also had a well-reviewed cameo in the 2008 comedy "Tropic Thunder.")
However, Fox executives believe that when audiences see "Knight and Day," they'll be reminded of one of Cruise's most successful and beloved starring roles.
"I don't think people have seen this guy since "Jerry Maguire," Watts said. "He's available, charming and funny. He's a movie star for a reason."