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Kick-Ass disappoints at the US box office

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Despite an expensive marketing campaign and web-fuelled hype Kick-Ass under performed at the US box office this weekend.

There had been expectations that it would hit the Number 1 slot and could have a $30 million opening, but it failed to hit the top slot which was instead claimed by the DreamWorks animated film How To Train Your Dragon, which is in its fourth week of release.

* UPDATE 19/04/10: Variety are now reporting that Kick-Ass was the Number 1 film of the weekend as Lionsgate opened it early on Thursday and are counting those grosses in with their final figure. This allows them to claim the weekend, although the figures are so narrow I still think the studio are going to be disappointed with this opening. *

It is worth pointing out that Kick-Ass was an interesting case study as it was funded outside the studio system and was a rare example of a high profile indie film having a shot at making some decent cash.

Things looked promising as it was being released by Lionsgate (the only major distributor outside of the big six major studios) and they have a strong track record in releasing edgier films – like the Saw franchise – to a wide audience.

Kick-Ass seemed to be tailor made for them: it looked like a superhero movie; it had lots of carefully cultivated buzz on the geekier websites (AICN, CHUD); and it was a film that directly appealed to a hipper, younger audience.

This meant that Lionsgate felt they had a potential breakthrough hit on their hands and they spent heavily marketing the film. Some have speculated they acquired it for $25m and $40m on prints and advertising, including TV ads like this.

Going in to the weekend it had decent reviews (76 on Rotten Tomatoes, 67 on Metacritic), online buzz, awareness and it was on a load of screens with little in the way of serious rivals (the main one being the US remake of Death of a Funeral).

All this boded well and some Hollywood observers were even expecting it to make $30m.

By the end of the weekend it had only grossed $19.7m and had been (narrowly) beaten to the top slot by an animated film that had already been out for three weeks.

Why did it under perform?

My guess is that it played well to the male-skewing fanbase but just didn’t connect with the wider audience due to the violence, the in-your-face tone of the film and the fact that it was not a conventional super-hero movie at all.

Distributor Lionsgate’s exit polling indicated that 60 percent of those who saw Kick-Ass audience were male and 50 percent was under 25 years old.

In essence, the geeks raved and went to see it but the wider audience didn’t.

Given that the accepted formula for a film’s theatrical gross is to multiply the opening weekend figures by 2.5, this would suggest Kick-Ass is only going to gross around $65m.

This might seem a respectable number for an independent production but in order to greenlight a sequel and build a franchise, they’d be looking for a higher number.

Although the film had created levels of hysteria amongst fanboys not seen since Watchmen, it is a salutary reminder that creating a genuine mainstream hit outside the studio system remains difficult.

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Avatar beats Titanic to break all-time box office record

James Cameron has conquered the worldwide box office again as Avatar has now beaten previous record holder Titanic to become the highest worldwide grosser of all time.

With weekend figures for his latest film adding up to a staggering $1.838 billion worldwide, this weekend’s expected $15 million US earnings allowed it to do what many thought was unthinkable and surpass his 1997 epic, which had a worldwide gross of $1.842 billion.

‘Titanic’ still remains the highest grosser domestically in the US with $600.8 million, but it only seems like a matter of time before Cameron’s latest film catches up after already earning $551.7 million as of Monday.

It is a remarkable achievement, as Titanic seemed a one off that would never be repeated, but the combination of multiple repeat viewings and the higher ticket prices for 3D screenings helped turn it into a tsunami of cash for 20th Century Fox.

Part of the key to its mainstream success lies in the fact that this is the first live action 3D film for a mass mainstream audience. Although 3D has become the norm at cinemas for animated films over the last 18 months, live action films such as The Final Destination were gimmicky and few and far between.

But Avatar was designed from the beginning as a spectacular and immersive 3D experience which would be shown on as many new digital screens as possible.

It was a calculated gamble for Fox and Cameron to push this technology on such a high profile film, which wasn’t an established property or sequel, but it has paid off handsomely.

Another aspect worth noting is how well it has done in markets such as China and Russia, which were harder to tap back in the late 1990s and this certainly helped its global box office numbers.

Why has it hit such a chord with audiences?

The combination of ground breaking visuals and a universal story line that fits neatly into many global cultures would appear to be the primary reasons but we should also bear in mind the Christmas box office, which features less competition than the summer.

Can it break the $2 billion barrier? At this point few would bet against it.

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Box Office News

UK Box Office at Seven Year High

UK cinema admissions in 2009 reached their highest level since 2002, according to data from the UK Film Council.

Last year there were 173.9m customers, who collectively bought £944m worth of tickets with the most successful films being:

  1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – £50.72m
  2. Avatar – £41.00m
  3. Ice Age III – £35.02m
  4. Up – £34.42m
  5. Slumdog Millionaire – £31.66m
  6. The Twilight Saga: New Moon – £27.08m
  7. Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen – £27.06m
  8. The Hangover – £22.12m
  9. Star Trek – £21.40m
  10. Monsters Vs. Aliens – £21.37m  [Source: Nielsen EDI, UK Film Council]

Ticket sales have varied in the past seven years, peaking in 2002 with a total of 175.9m admissions and dipping to 156.6m in 2006.

The World Cup was a factor for both of these years, as televised games in the summer always eat into the summer box office.

But the very early kick off times in the 2002 tournament (when the tournament was in Korea and Japan) didn’t have the same effect as in 2006 when a lot of games in Germany were in the same time zone.

However, the big trend for last year was the surge in ticket sales which was helped in part by three films: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Twilight: New Moon and Avatar.

Potter is the most bankable film franchise in history, New Moon has brought younger female audiences out in droves and Avatar is essentially the new Titanic.

It is also worth looking at how successful family friendly animated films are: Up, Monsters vs Aliens and Ice Age III have all done major business. The international grosses of the latter are truly mind boggling given how relatively cheap it was to make.

I don’t always subscribe to the notion that cinema does well in a recession but if the right mix of films hit the spot for mass audiences across the board then it is cheaper than other leisure activities and an escape from going down the pub and discussing how miserable life is.

It remains doubtful that 2010 will be as successful as 2009 and I imagine Avatar will cast a long shadow over fellow box office rivals.

But summer releases that look set to do serious business include Iron Man 2, Sex and the City 2 (God help us), Robin Hood, Toy Story 3, Twilight: Eclipse and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 in November.

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Box Office News

Paranormal Activity tops the US box office

Paranormal Activity

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Something remarkable happened this weekend at the US box office as the low budget horror film Paranormal Activity clinched the number 1 slot.

The movie is about a young couple haunted by a supernatural presence in their home and it is presented in a documentary style, using footage from the camera set up by the couple to capture what is haunting them.

Made for the tiny sum of $11,000 (yes, eleven thousand) in 2006 by director Oren Peli, it first screened at the Screamfest festival in 2007 and the Slamdance film festival in January, 2008 (the more high profile Sundance festival turned it down).

Despite garning some interest, no distributor picked it up until a copy of the film ended up at DreamWorks, where it was seen by production executive Ashley Brooks.

It went down so well with production chief Adam Goodman, studio head Stacey Snider and a certain Steven Spielberg, to the point where they greenlit a larger budget remake, with the original production to be included on the DVD as an extra.

However, the low budget nature of the original film was part of its allure and after screening it for international buyers in Santa Monica, the reaction was such that international rights were sold to 52 different countries.

With all this buzz Adam Goodman (who had since taken over as Paramount’s main exec) decided to release the original film in limited release during October.

Paranormal Activity posterIt was during this period that the marketing department felt that they could use internet buzz to their advantage.

Another stroke of good luck was when Paramount decided to postpone the release of Martin Scorsese’s latest film Shutter Island from an October 2009 release to February next year.

Presumably this was because they either felt it wasn’t Oscar-friendly enough, or because their pipeline of films needed some big name action in the first quarter of next year.

In any event, it meant that “Paranormal Activity” had the full attention of Paramount’s marketing folk and especially that of online marketing executive Amy Powell who, along with her team, adopted an innovative online grass roots campaign.

Inverting the way which mainstream films are usually released in thousands of theatres with a heavy TV and outdoor marketing campaign, Powell and her team opted for a very different strategy.

Playing on the idea that the film was ‘really scary’ and something of a cult in the making they asked film fans to demand a screening in their area via sites like eventful.com

The towns who got the most votes would ‘win’ a booking of the film. Furthermore the studio said that if Paranormal Activity got over a million votes, they would release it nationwide.

Eventful - Paranormal Activity

What’s particularly ingenious about this unconventional approach is how it built an army of dedicated fans and paying customers very cheaply.

Instead of being a big, bad studio making crap like G.I. Joe, Paramount had effectively taken the side of the average movie fan, helping them see this unbelievably scary horror film.

Like any marketing it was essentially smoke and mirrors, perhaps the Hollywood equivalent of Barack Obama’s efforts in utilising the open platform of the web in order to get elected against overwhelming odds.

Journalism students and media pundits might like to debate the following quote from the movie website Rope of Silicon:

I have obviously been shilling for Paramount’s Paranormal Activity more than I have for a movie in quite some time, but when you have a great time in the theater with a film you believe should only be experienced in the theater with a rowdy and on the edge of their seat audience you want others to get in on the fun.

I can’t quite see the New York Times of The Guardian openly admit they were ‘shilling’ for a movie but maybe it’s a sign of how the media landscape is changing in that outlets openly admit they’ve been co-opted into the selling of a film. But maybe that’s a debate for another day.

Although the studio felt that the initial buzz was limited to film geeks and fansites, they managed to break out from that particular ghetto, persuading people to use Twitter (“tweet your scream!“) and Facebook (112,653 fans so far) to get a million votes for the national release.

In their words, reminiscent of a slogan from John Carpenter’s They Live, web banners told potential audiences across America:

“Demand it!”

Demand it they certainly did. When they finally cracked the million (after just four days) the studio posted a message to the site saying “You did it!”. YOu could interpret this as also saying “gee, thanks for doing our marketing work for us – for free!”. User generated marketing anyone?

But of course, the official line was the more uplifting:

“The first-ever film release decided by you.”

Which in modern Hollywood terms wasn’t actually that far off the mark.

As Powell said recently:

“We have been able to galvanize the community online to actually drive the release strategy and the film has been released as a result of the fans support”

On October 9th it got a limited release in several U.S. cities and had a nationwide opening from last Friday (October 16th).

Notice how the trailer incorporates the marketing campaign:

This weekend the film went head to head with Saw VI (the hugely profitable horror franchise which has dominated the Halloween box office since 2004) and despite playing on a considerably lower number of screens (around a 1000 less in fact) it still managed to beat it – a truly remarkable feat for a film in its 5th week of release.

Saw VI will probably finish the weekend with a $15m gross compared to Paranormal Activity’s $21m. So far the latter has an overall gross (or cume to use industry speak) of $62m.

Again, incredible numbers for a micro-budget project that got promoted to the big league.

But it doesn’t just stop there, as the studio can now surf the buzz of being the number 1 movie and it will expand next week (Halloween weekend, appropriately enough) and some even think that it has a shot at grossing over $100M.

When you think that the film was made independently for $11,000, bought by Paramount for an estimated $300,000 and had around $10M spent on prints and advertising, the numbers add up to one of the most profitable films in recent Hollywood history.

The only comparison I can think of is The Blair Witch Project back in 1999. However, the fact that it took ten years for another low budget film to crash the mainstream suggests that they are rare beasts.

Or does it? Perhaps studios might be a little more keen to try out low budget films and more grass roots marketing via the web.

Of course you have to have the right kind of film, but if a few more releases like Paranormal Activity pop up over the next few years it may not be such a surprise.

Certainly rival studio execs and marketing departments will be looking at how this film became a hit and whether or not the marketing of it represents a future trend.

Paranormal Activity is released in the UK on November 25th

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Box Office News

Where the Wild Things Are set to top US box office

Where the Wild Things Are / Warner Bros 2009

The long awaited film version of Maurice Sendak’s much loved children’s book Where the Wild Things Are is set to top the US box office this weekend.

Directed by Spike Jonze and scripted by Dave Eggers, it had a long and reportedly fractious journey to the screen at Warner Bros.

But there will be smiles and relief all around at Burbank this weekend as it seems likely to be a hit even though it was a costly and drawn out production, with the budget rumoured to be around $100 million.

On Friday it opened wide on 3,735 screens and Deadline is reporting a likely $33M weekend, whilst The Wrap thinks it could top $40 million.

I’m guessing that, like the book, it is going to be a perennial children’s favourite for years to come.

I’d also wager that it is going to be the surprise film at this year’s London film festival, but that’s only speculation of course.