Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Daily News

[ January 1st 2002 ]

When Rush Hour 2 was released this summer, Granada Hills resident Jacob Gerber headed straight to the multiplex to see the latest madcap adventures of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. Gerber, who was at the Winnetka 21 in Chatsworth last week to see The Fellowship of the Ring, was among the fans who helped push Rush Hour 2 to a $67.4 million opening weekend.

But by the next weekend, moviegoers had moved on in droves to American Pie 2 and ticket sales for Rush Hour 2 dropped by 51 percent. "I like to see the blockbusters right when they come out," said Gerber, a 27-year-old financial analyst. "I love opening night with the crowds. You get the whole buzz and are with people who really want to be there."

Many other films released by the major studios, including Planet of the Apes, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Jurassic Park III and Vanilla Sky, also bowed in more than 3,000 theaters and experienced in some cases record opening weekends in 2001. But the these films' sensational debuts, which saturated theaters when launched, were often followed by a dramatic second-week plummet in ticket sales of 50 percent or more.

While big opening weekends have always been the goal of studios, 2001 crystalized a trend where a majority of a blockbuster's tickets are being sold right out of the gate. Moviegoers are flocking to their local multiplex to be among the first to see the newest release then migrating to the next big opening. "Everybody in the business understands that perception is important and having the biggest opening weekend gross is an important part of building that perception," said Nikki Rocco, president of distribution at Universal Studios. "It's all relative. The films are ultimately doing incredible business. It's not inhibiting the overall final gross."

With approximately 35,000 screens in the United States, there are more venues than ever for movies to debut. This proliferation of screens has allowed for a multiplex to have screening times of hugely popular films like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Fellowship of the Ring to show every hour or even half-hour. This, along with intense studio marketing, has contributed mightily to the current moviegoing habit of wanting to see it fast and first.

"New movies come out and you'll be, like, behind because things get old real fast," said 15-year-old Andrew Armbruster as he waited in line last week to buy a ticket for the new comedy "How High" at Winnetka 21. "By next week, it'll be like everyone has already seen the movie." Andrew; his younger brother, Anthony; and their friend Nick Danenberg go to the movies every week almost without fail and plan to take in scores of films during their winter vacation. "We like to be able to tell everybody if something is good or not and if they should see it," said Nick, 14.

Buena Vista Distribution President Chuck Viane said the increasing convenience of the moviegoing experience has made all the difference in how soon even the casual fan will venture out to see a new release. "The public thinks it's OK to go on opening weekend now because they won't be turned away," Viane said. "There was a time, not that long ago, when I think some people would naturally gravitate to the second or third week of the movie. Now it's not so hard to get the kind of seating they would like."

With the industry and the public focused more than ever on opening weekend grosses, there is increasing pressure on the studios to deliver instant big numbers. "You do a lot of marketing in advance to build awareness and you do want to be everywhere possible," Rocco said. "When you have a broad-appeal film and there's such heat going in, you don't have a choice."

Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, said studios win whether fans come in droves right at the start or in a steady stream over the course of several weeks. "It hardly matters to the studio because if a film is getting to $200 million in a couple of weeks then they are doing great," he said. "Who this hurts is the exhibitors because they are making a bigger percentage of the box office as the film plays on. It's a sliding scale."

Edwards Theatres, the largest theater operator in Southern California, has built many stadium-seating multiplexes in recent years and is one of several chains grappling with the new economics of changing moviegoing habits. "It's a concern that the movies are shorter-lived in the marketplace than they have been traditionally," said Alan Davy, executive vice president and head film buyer for the Edwards chain. "What we've done is increase the availability of seats for the audience on opening weekend than we have had traditionally. This phenomenon is relatively new so we haven't as an industry exactly worked through all of the benefits and all of the pitfalls of this procedure."

Davy said there are "ongoing negotiations" with the studios about the current revenue formulas which vary with each chain. "There is some work necessary to fine-tune some of the traditional mechanisms," Davy said. "The studios recognize the benefits the theaters have brought to the industry and the benefit for us is as studios make more money, the studios make more movies."

John Fithian, president of National Assn. of Theater Owners, said that studio marketing is a major factor. "They drive the marketing programs toward a big opening so the culture now is that patrons want to see movies fast," Fithian said. "There are ad campaigns that are geared toward big openings and everybody reports on what a film makes in its first weekend. It's not a trend that we are particularly comfortable with."

But another factor is the result of the exhibitors' own doing when they built more screens more rapidly in the last half of the 1990s than at any other time in history, at one point reaching nearly 38,000 screens in the United States.

Industry experts note that while a bonanza opening is more important than ever, it is not crucial to a movie having a long, healthy run in theaters. In 1997, "Titanic," the highest grossing movie of all time at $600.8 million, bowed with a mere $28.6 million during its opening weekend. But the Oscar-winning epic had what the industry refers to as "legs.""Titanic lasted and lasted and lasted," Fithian said. " The Sixth Sense and Shrek are two other examples of movies with legs."

Another recent example of legs is The Others starring Nicole Kidman. The mystery-thriller had a modest debut but quietly pulled in audiences steadily throughout the summer as it competed with the likes of Rush Hour 2 and American Pie 2 and has so far earned nearly $100 million at the box office. "I think any good movie can withstand the opening weekend onslaught and stay around in the marketplace," Viane said.

Dergarabedian said that two of the season's biggest hit movies are proof that a quality film, with good word-of-mouth and critical buzz, can have a mammoth opening weekend and continue to sustain big business. "Harry Potter had the biggest three-day opening and yet it has managed to continue to do well," he said. "With close to $300 million in the till, it's hard to say that film suffered. And I think The Lord of the Rings (trilogy) is going to have major legs."

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