Before Predicting If George Clooney Can Open 'Leatherheads'… He Went Fi-Core!

leatherheads_galleryposter.jpgUPDATE: Clooney’s ‘Leatherheads’ Fumbles Friday Box Office

I dive into this weekend’s box office forecast below. But first I need to deal with another matter. We all learned from today’s Variety that WGA member George Clooney went fi-core last fall after a 2-1 credit arbitration decision that only Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly deserved screen credit on Leatherheads even though Clooney claimed he did a major overhaul on the script which he also directed and starred in. Well, this certainly explains why Clooney never walked the picket line alongside the striking writers.

Clooney told the trade “he would have quit the WGA altogether, but that would have prevented him from working on all WGA-covered productions. He says he wanted nothing more to do with the WGA but didn’t want to be hampered in his ability in writing scripts.” Variety takes Clooney’s side. Not me. Forget the merits of his case: he was churlish and childish to go fi-core.

Earth to George: such disappointments happen every day of the week to real screenwriters — but they don’t pick up their toys and go home.

leatherheads8.jpgI’m not going to diss him for bigfooting the script because that is his right. Nor should anyone hold against him that he starred in it, he directed it, he produced it and he’s already got a villa on Lake Como. But, by going fi-core, he deservedly earns the enmity of 12,000 members of the Writers Guild for refusing to play by their rules.

The veteran writers who do the WGA arbitrations take them very seriously. They spend dozens of hours reading all the drafts, comparing all the changes, and then submitting a document justifying their decision. That’s then read by yet another member who confirms that it’s in line with all the Guild regulations concerning screenwriting credit. So this decision that went against Clooney wasn’t somebody’s whim or envy. Each arbitrator knows what’s at stake. (In order just to be an arbitrator, you have to have a screen credits…)

nimsisland_galleryposter.jpgTrue, the deck is definitely more stacked against an actor-writer-director-producer, or any combination thereof, on a project. In order for a producer or director (also known as a production entity) to receive credit, each must have made substantative changes in over 60% of the script. The bar is higher for them specifically because of the old days when producers and directors self-administered credits, and everybody and his brother-in-law got a screenwriting credit.

The questions facing the arbitrators was this: did Clooney fundamentally change the story or the characters or the plot? It is a misconception that dialogue doesn’t count: if it fundamentally changed the tone and intent of the movie, dialogue does count. But it is the sum total of all the changes that determines who gets credit and in what order.

Now for the supreme irony: Clooney claimed his major overhaul transformed Leatherheads into a screwball comedy. And that seems to be the weakest part of the picture to top critics who gave it only 36% positive reviews. According to Rotten Tomatoes, their concensus is, “Despite a good premise and strong cast, this pro football romcom is half screwball and half fumble.”

theruins_galleryposter.jpgAll of Hollywood is especially watching Leatherheads‘ release to see if Clooney can open the movie. It’s not as if Clooney’s career is on the line. Only his paycheck. As one studio mogul said to me this morning, “He’s no Will Smith.” And if his non-ensemble big studio movies keep opening wide under $16 million domestic (Michael Clayton, Intolerable Cruelty, Solaris, Three Kings, Out Of Sight, The Peacemaker, One Fine Day…), then Clooney may have to cut his price accordingly. For all of his media darling coverage, he seems unable to attract moviegoers on his own. I’ve written repeatedly and negatively about Clooney’s box office performances. I think it’s not enough for him to be considered a big a movie star. He has to perform like a big movie star, too.

With a budget of $60 million, the Universal pic was nurtured by a smart marketing campaign that combined football, romance, comedy and nostalgia. Even better, Clooney hyped the hell out of the movie, eking out every ounce of PR possible. The comedy has been tracking well with older men and older women, who’ve been equally enthusiastic for weeks. And there is also a surprising amount of strength with young males and teens.

Even so, my box office gurus don’t expect the movie to be big. Universal is hopeful for high teens. Says a source, “if we can hit $20M, it would be an absolutely exceptional result”. My analysts think $15M-$16M. Bad news for George.

As for other pics, Nim’s Island starring Abigail Breslin and Jodie Foster for Fox/Walden is traditional family fare aimed at girls. Thanks to Saturday kiddie matinees, it should bring in $14M. The Ruins, that horror thriller from DreamWorks/Paramount, is predicted to make single digits.

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