MONDAY 12 PM: It’s now official. According to today’s actuals, DreamWorks/Universal’s Cowboys & Aliens narrowly beat Sony Pictures’ Smurfs for the weekend win $ $36,431,290 vs $35,611,637.
SATURDAY PM/SUNDAY AM, 6TH UPDATE WRITETHRU: If I hear the words “too close to call” one more time this weekend coming from a Hollywood executive looking at early weekend numbers… DreamWorks/Universal’s Cowboys & Aliens ticked up slightly from Friday to Saturday, while Sony Pictures’ The Smurfs ticked down slightly. So it all depends on Sunday whether the Western/scifi mashup or the little blue guys get bragging (and marketing) rights as the #1 opening movie. Right now both Uni and Sony are projecting Cowboys and Smurfs tied at $36.2M for the weekend. Let’s see when the dust clears for Monday’s actuals. But a Sony exec emails me, “If we beat them or even are close Saturday, we’ve got them as our Sunday will definitely be better.”
What is crystal clear is that Smurfs is overperforming way beyond expectations while Cowboys & Aliens is way behind expectations to the point of tanking. What’s more humiliating than Hollywood execs overestimating the opening for Cowboys and having it fall short? Having their well-pedigreed motion picture with big Hollywood writers (Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman), stars (Daniel Craig & Harrison Ford), director (Jon Favreau), and producers (Steven Spielberg & Ron Howard & Brian Grazer) beaten at the box office by Smurfs. Especially with Smurfs playing in 355 fewer North American theaters than Cowboys but charging higher 3D ticket prices. Smurfs even beat Cowboys on CinemaScores: ‘A’ vs ‘B’. The other major studio release was Warner Bros’ rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love which received ‘B+’ CinemaScore and opened to the normal $19.3M for the weekend. This is another big summer weekend with overall moviegoing $175M which is +20% from last year.
1. Cowboys & Aliens (DreamWorks/Universal) NEW [3,750 Runs]
Friday $12.9M, Saturday $13M, Estimated Weekend $36.2M
This much-hyped high concept pic from DreamWorks and Relativity and Imagine and Universal (distributing domestic only with Paramount taking foreign) couldn’t do even the predicted $45 million for the weekend, but it didn’t even get to $40M either. “Cowboys & Aliens did not get any late night young male business — hence the reason Universal’s estimates were so far off,” a rival studio exec explained to me Friday night. I’ve been saying for months this actioner should have been done as a comedy! But that idea was only briefly discussed and quickly rejected. Problem is that the budget has been pegged by insiders at a low of $163M (because of filming rebates) and a high of $200M. That’s partly because Cowboys endured a tortured 14-year development history involving more than a dozen writers. (Just five writers received screenplay credit after the Writers Guild not surprisingly held an arbitration trying to figure out who did what.) So here’s yet another Hollywood case study of too many cooks spoiling the broth.
Awareness had been strong for the title and interest had been best with older males. But tracking had been lagging especially with women of all ages until last Thursday when it popped up. This weekend’s exit polls showed the audience was 53% male vs. 47% female, with 63% of moviegoers age 30 years and older vs. 37% who were under age 30. Good thing Universal is only on the hook for 25% financing with DreamWorks taking 50% and Relativity Media 25%. DreamWorks oversaw production, and the marketing was managed as a partnership among Universal and DreamWorks. The film itself is based on a 100-page Platinum Studios graphic novel created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg and written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley.
It’s going to be hard for anyone involved in the movie to shrug off responsibility for it underperforming because even the studio was gushing pre-release about its pedigree “because of its deep bench of heavyweight filmmakers and stars, and the most fan-engaged because of involving them directly at every step, particularly through director Jon Favreau, the big-ticket director most active in social media and direct interaction with his followers. Every step of the campaign kept many hands on the wheel, shared by Universal, DreamWorks and the filmmaking team, who all worked in close collaboration on every decision.” Oops! As for marketing, the first teaser trailer was placed on Part 1 of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows last November, followed by a Super Bowl teaser. The first full trailer made its debut on American Idol on April 14th and in theaters on April 29 with Universal’s big hit Fast Five. The TV campaign included season finales for Top 10 Nielsen shows and sports events.
The publicity campaign launched at last year’s Comic-Con even though the film had only been in production for a few weeks, Favreau used his Iron Man connection with fans to debut nearly 8 minutes of footage, including the first alien attack on the pioneer town in the film. While Harrison Ford made his first-ever appearance to a huge reception. This year’s Comic-Con featured a full-frills world premiere featuring Favreau as well as Spielberg, making his own first appearance at the Con. But it’s interesting how the movie disappointed despite favreau whoring himself out to The Hollywood Reporter (which nobody reads) and Ain’t It Cool News (which nobody believes). The director even dragged along producer Ron Howard and producer/co-writer Bob Orci to some events, showing more and more footage each time. I heard from Universal that Daniel Craig was a royal pain in the ass when it came to doing publicity, but he did enough with Harrison Ford to merit one magazine cover line, “When Bond Met Indy”. (Barf!)
The usual talk show circuit was highlighted by Jimmy Kimmel Live‘s “Cowboys & Aliens Week” promotion which had Favreau revisiting his Dinner For Five cable show and personally interviewing his lead cast members and filmmakers for a series of online segments. Favreau also helped create and star in a special skit with YouTube vlogging personality Freddie Wong, who specializes in action-packed and parody videos especially popular with boys. The film became the first ever to be a primary sponsor of a Nascar across multiple races as well as a tie-in with Coca-Cola in theater concessions via drink cups, and popcorn bags and buckets over the course of the summer in 8 of the top theater chains in North America. Other promotions with leading brands included 7-Eleven, Nestlé, Comcast, NCM/Sprint, Pemmican, and Hilton. And in addition to all that, the film made a significant Hispanic outreach across specialized media and publicity, highlighted by a closing night screening at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. Well, you can’t fault anyone for lack of trying.
1. The Smurfs – 3D (Sony) NEW [3,395 Runs]
Friday $13.4M, Saturday $12.7M, Estimated Weekend $36.2M
Sure, it’s easy to look down your nose at The Smurfs, but the studio tells me it was brought in out of turnaround from Paramount by no less than Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman/CEO Michael Lynton. Animation was overseen by Bob Osher and Hannah Minghella (who is now president of production for Sony’s Columbia Pictures) while live action was shepherded by Doug Belgrad. Marketing was taken in hand by Jeff Blake and Marc Weinstock. Hollywood never expected Smurfs to have such a phenomenal Friday except Sony. “The studio has always had confidence in the franchise,” an exec gushed to me. Exit polls showed that 35% of this weekend’s audience was general moviegoers while 65% was kids with parents. Of the family sample, 40% were parents of children under age 12 and 25% were children under 12. The overall breakdown showed the film skewed female with 64% of the audience moms and/or their daughters. The general age breakdown showed 45% was under 25 and 55% was 25+. Overall, 3D accounted for 45% of all ticket sales.
The cartoon first launched in Europe in 1958 so the pic was tracking well overseas after Global Smurfs Day was organized by Sony in Brussels, Athens, The Hague, Dublin, Mexico City, Panama City, Warsaw, Moscow, Johannesburg, London, and NYC (which celebrated Smurfs Week including lighting the Empire State Building Smurf blue in a special event with UNICEF). There was even a small town in Spain where the village volunteered to paint their entire town Smurf blue. And Smurfs fans set a new Guinness world record for the largest gathering of people dressed as the little blue guys within a 24-hour period in multiple venues. “That, plus a huge opening in Spain, makes for a pretty Smurfy opening with worldwide prospects for France, Belgium, and Germany opening next week,” a Sony exec says.
Look, I don’t get the appeal of garden gnomes or troll dolls or Smurfs for that matter. They creep me out, frankly. But the little blue guys were first drawn by Belgian artist Pierre “Peyo” Culliford for a comic book. The “Schtroumpfs,” as they were initially called, have lasted 50 years and generated comics, books, television series, films, videogames, live shows, and figurines. The Smurfs movie also took a long time to come to the Big Screen. In 1980, the late (and great) Brandon Tartikoff developed the Hanna-Barbera show on NBC for Saturday mornings. It ran 8 years. In 1997, producer Jordan Kerner sent the first of a series of letters to Lafig, the licensing agent for the Smurfs brand, as a first step to making a movie. And in 2002, after seeing Kerner’s adaptation of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Peyo’s heirs gave the OK. Starring Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays, Sofia Vergara, and Hank Azaria, the roon/live action hybrid was directed by Raja Gosnell. Screenplay credits went to J. David Stem & David N. Weiss and Jay Scherick & David Ronn with story by J. David Stem & David N. Weiss.
Sony focused its marketing first and foremost on introducing this brand to a whole new generation of kids who were not familiar with it. “The campaign used a two-pronged approach: one track targeted kids and children while the other hit the baby boomers who grew up with the hit NBC series and had a nostalgic connection to this brand from their youth,” a Sony exec says. NBCUniversal, as the longtime home of the Smurfs’ TV show, aired Sony’s custom animation and custom promos including Smurfs-branded spots, vignettes, in-show integrations, logo animations, sneak peeks, and digital extensions during the past two weeks. One showed the Smurfs taking over an NBCUniversal control room. There also were Nickelodeon sneak peaks during the Saturday Morning Animation Block hosted by Neil Patrick Harris.
In the consumer marketing arena, 3rd party partners included McDonald’s planned the year’s largest global campaign in over 30,000 restaurants. Post cereal, which created the original Smurf Berry Crunch in 1983, is back again with a limited edition blue and white breakfast cereal and collectible box featuring two sides: one with 3D movie graphics and the other with the classic Smurf cartoon art. Gourmet Trading Company put the Smurfs into the nation’s grocery store produce aisles as the company featured the Smurfs on its packages of blueberries.
3. Captain America – 3D (Marvel/Disney/Paramount) Week 2 [3,715 Runs]
Friday $7.8M, Saturday $9.9M, Weekend $24.9M (-62%), Estimated Cume $116.7M
Ten days in North American release, Marvel/Disney’s latest superhero Captain America: The First Avenger is still running slightly behind Thor which took in $119.5M by this time vs $117.5M for the Chris Evans adventure. Paramount is gleeful over its 6th consecutive release over $100M in the U.S., claiming no studio has ever had more than 4. This weekend, pic opened strong in Latin America and Asia (but not Japan and China). International numbers around noon.
4. Harry Potter/Hallows Pt 2 - 3D (Warner Bros) Week 3 [4,145 Runs]
Friday $6.6M, Saturday $8.5M, Weekend $21.9M, Cume $318.4M
Yes, the Harry Potter franchise finale keeps dropping (-54% this 3rd domestic weekend in release) and now appears front-loaded. But what a load!
5. Crazy, Stupid, Love (Warner Bros) NEW [3,020 Runs]
Friday $7M, Weekend $19.3M
Another summer weekend, another summer rom-com — this time from Warner Bros. Better reviewed than most, Crazy, Stupid, Love should have “a large multiple and legs,” according to the studio, adding, “Watch for excellent mid-week business as well.” The better-than-average casting of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone and Steve Carell and Julianne Moore signaled this wasn’t the usual lamefest with dopey dialogue. And the marketing smartly played off that. “We sought to highlight the films originality, and position it as a funny and deeply felt and refreshing look at how relationships make people crazy,” a Warner Bros insider tells me. Branding the title and giving it meaning was also key. Studio married “caught” moments from the film with bold colors and repetitive copy saying “This is crazy”, “This is stupid”, “This is love.” The campaign kicked off with trailers in April and May and played all through the summer. The very aggressive TV campaign started in May with season finales. “We used longer length spots in the beginning to convey the multiple story lines, and used a heavy amount of reviews as soon as we had them to define the film as something out of the ordinary.” In terms of publicity, the cast appeared together on the MTV Movie Awards. To build word of mouth, the studio held over 200 screenings in over 60 markets and hosted tastemaker events in key cities designed to tap into that elusive circle of trendsetters especially online. Fans were asked at each screening to tweet if they liked the movie and fan the film on Facebook. Two weeks before release, Warner Bros pushed out 3 online content pieces on Apple. And in keeping with the strategy of pushing out as much content as possible, the final push included an original video shot with Steve Carrell for Funny or Die which appeared this week of release.
6. Friends With Benefits (Screen Gems/Sony) Week 2 [2,926 Runs]
Friday $3.2M, Saturday $3.4M, Weekend $9.3M (-48%), Cume $38.2M
7. Horrible Bosses (New Line/Warner Bros) Week 4 [2,510 Runs]
Friday $2.2M, Saturday $2.8M, Weekend $7.1M, Cume $96.2M
8. Transformers 3 – 3D (Paramount) Week 5 [2,604 Runs]
Friday $1.7M, Saturday $2.3M, Weekend $5.9M, Estimated Cume $337.8M
9. Zookeeper (Sony) Week 4 [2,418 Runs]
Friday $1.3M, Saturday $1.6M, Weekend $4.2M, Estimated Cume $68.7M
10. Cars 2 – 3D (Pixar/Disney) Week 6 [1,763 Runs]
Friday $671K, Saturday $921K, Weekend $2.3M, Estimated Cume $182M
SATURDAY AM, 4TH UPDATE: (Mea Culpa: Not a good idea for me to stay up all night doing box office. I get tired and transpose figures. Here are the corrected numbers.) According to Universal’s North American box office stats, Cowboys & Aliens opened only #2 Friday with $12.994M, beaten by the $13.291M debut of Sony Pictures’ The Smurfs. But Universal is still claiming its Western/scifi mashup should come in #1 for the weekend at $36.78M, ahead of the little blue guys toon’s $36.02M. Or is that only wishful thinking at this point? Smurfs is really overperforming while Cowboys & Aliens is way behind expectations to the point of tanking.
FRIDAY PM/SATURDAY AM, 2ND UPDATE: Talk about humiliation! By late night Friday, it became clear that not only was the Western/scifi mashup from DreamWorks and Relativity and Imagine and Universal (distributing domestic only with Paramount taking foreign) not doing the predicted $45 million for the weekend, but that it was running neck-and-neck with Sony Pictures’ little blue guys toon for first place. So both Cowboys & Aliens and The Smurfs are looking around $13M for Friday. And we won’t know who is truly No. 1 well into Saturday morning. “Cowboys & Aliens did not get any late night young male business — hence the reason Universal’s estimates were so far off,” a rival studio exec explained to me Friday night. But Sony execs went to bed expecting Smurfs to be #1 which should translate into a “way overperforming’ $37M. Some rival studios are even predicting that Cowboys could fall short with only mid-$30sM. Smurfs beat Cowboys on CinemaScores ‘A’ vs ‘B’. Refined numbers and full analysis in the morning.
FRIDAY 5 PM UPDATE: Now I’m told that DreamWorks/Imagine/Universal’s mashup Cowboys & Aliens is picking up steam at the box office tonight and could open with $17M grosses for Friday and a $45M weekend. “It’s hitting a good pace,” a Universal exec just told me. Maybe there’s more room there because the weekend number is still on the low end of what the studio was expecting. Sony Pictures’ Smurfs is looking even stronger for $12M today for a $32M weekend which is respectable for its target audience of very young moviegoers. And Warner Bros’ Crazy, Stupid, Love is still looking like $6M today for probably a $19M first weekend in line with other recent rom-coms. Stay tuned for more updates and full analysis tonight.
FRIDAY 12 PM: It’s still very early so I’m not prepared yet to definitively say that DreamWorks/Imagine/Universal’s mashup Cowboys & Aliens is dramatically underperforming because older audiences come out later. But sources are telling me that today’s seeming $15M debut may add up to at most a $40M weekend which is below the studio’s own lowball projections of $45+M. Sony Pictures’ Smurfs is looking like $10M today for $29M weekend which is respectable for its target audience of very young moviegoers. And Warner Bros’ Crazy, Stupid, Love is looking like $6M today for probably a $18M first weekend.