For ‘Hugo,’ a big opening isn’t necessarily better

After taking in $15 million over the Thanksgiving weekend, one of Hollywood’s boldest movie bets of 2011 is now pressing ahead with one of the year’s riskiest distribution strategies.

Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” the Academy Award-winning director’s first family film and first 3-D production, was originally conceived as a traditional family movie, perfect for a holiday weekend release. Budgeted at $150 million to $170 million, and based on the beloved children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” the movie would typically have been placed on 3,000-plus movie screens nationwide.

But near-final cuts of the film earlier this fall and pre-release surveys showed Paramount Pictures and producer and financier Graham King that “Hugo” would probably be a hit with critics but have limited initial appeal to mass audiences, who were more eager to see “The Muppets” and the latest “Twilight” sequel.


As a result, King and Paramount executives decided in October to open “Hugo” at a smaller number of theaters, then expand to more in December. On Friday, “Hugo” expands to more than 1,800 locations from 1,277.

It’s a path that has proved successful for inexpensive Oscar contenders like last year’s Academy Award-winning “The King’s Speech,” but is highly unusual for a big-budget event movie like “Hugo.”

King, an industry veteran who won an Oscar for Scorsese’s 2006 film “The Departed” and is one of Hollywood’s few independent producers with the ability to finance his own big-budget films, said trying to land the biggest possible opening wouldn’t have worked for “Hugo.”

“I feel this is not just a typical movie, but a masterpiece,” he said. “And a masterpiece needs to be nurtured.”

Nurturing “Hugo,” King said, means trying to keep it in theaters through January. Paramount is screening the picture extensively for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members, and other awards voters, with the hope that nominations will pique the interest of upscale adult moviegoers. The film received a number of votes, but no prizes, in the New York Film Critics Circle Awards announced Tuesday.

King had long insisted on opening his film on Thanksgiving, which led to a disagreement with original distribution partner Sony Pictures. Earlier this year he instead signed a deal with Paramount.

But the post-Thanksgiving evidence is decidedly mixed. The good-but-not-great opening-weekend results, from theaters primarily in and around big cities, left “Hugo” in a better position than Sony’s animated flop “Arthur Christmas.” But that didn’t prove whether it can hold up in suburban multiplexes and small towns against popular movies like “The Muppets.”

Reviews for “Hugo” were almost unanimously positive, and according to the website Flixster, 87% of people who saw the movie liked it.

Given the film’s source material and young protagonist, King and Paramount might have counted on it appealing directly to children. But they concluded that elements such as its emphasis on film history and preservation might not get children excited. As a result, the studio advertised primarily on prime-time network TV and not youth-focused channels like Cartoon Network.

Paramount’s president of domestic marketing, Megan Colligan, said “Hugo” will expand to more than 2,000 theaters by next week. The studio will also spend millions of advertising dollars it had originally planned to use last week if the picture had opened wider.

“ ‘Hugo’ is now well positioned as a multigenerational family film that can benefit from awards attention and play through Christmas,” Colligan said. “It’s a strategy born out of trying to reach a bunch of audience segments without overplaying any one hand.”

That plan has worked in the past for well-regarded movies, among them an earlier King-Scorsese collaboration, the 2004 Howard Hughes biographical film “The Aviator.” It opened to only $8.6 million but went on to collect $103 million in the U.S. and Canada.

But the strategy can backfire, resulting in lower final ticket sales than if the movie had opened wide. That may be why, outside of documentaries, no major studio has released an original digital 3-D picture in fewer than 2,000 theaters.

“The reason more people don’t do this is you can end up spending just as much to open the movie but make less,” said Jim Gallagher, a consultant who was formerly president of marketing for Walt Disney Studios. “However, it’s a great way to stand out from a glut of films that could be viewed similarly.”

“Hugo” is also looking for substantial grosses overseas, where 3-D has proved more popular than in the U.S. After a London royal premiere Monday, attended by Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, the film opens Friday in Britain, one of several European countries where King has distribution agreements.

For King, the fate of “Hugo” could be crucial as he tries to build a successful business as an independent producer of high-quality movies. October’s $50-million Johnny Depp film “The Rum Diary,” based on a Hunter S. Thompson novel, was not a commercial success, and last year’s “The Tourist” was a mixed bag, with a strong performance overseas but weak receipts domestically.

“I think there’s a business out there for the movies I want to make, the movies I’m proud of,” King said. “I truly believe in how we’re releasing ‘Hugo,’ and if I screwed it up, it’s on my shoulders.”