By Ronald Grover If you're a Hollywood movie exec, this hasn't been a particularly hot summer. Despite high-voltage marketing and supercharged special effects, big-budget flicks like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines or Sony's Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle have opened below expectations. Universal's The Hulk started big, and then faded so fast it left a giant trail of green goo in its wake. If there's a message here, it's this: Live by the hype, die by the hype.
Which is why a little film called 28 Days Later may well become the summer's most profitable flick. Made for a meager $8 million, the film has already sold more than $21 million worth of tickets in its first two weeks. This, despite a marketing budget that may well be less than what Warner Bros. spent on its lavish premiere for Arnold and his cyborg extravaganza.
A modern-era version of the 1968 horror flick Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later isn't pretty. There's blood everywhere, a lot of screaming crazies, and a postapocalyptic London left in ruins by a virus that inflicts nearly everyone with madness. But it may also be a model of how to market a niche film in the Internet era.
CREEPY TRADITION. Produced by Fox Searchlight, the specialty film unit of Rupert Murdoch's Twentieth Century Fox studio, 28 Days Later has quietly become the film with buzz -- especially among the under-25 crowd. Indeed, that's exactly how Fox Searchlight marketed it, aiming it at males 18 to 24 years of age who may not watch much primetime TV but live on their computers. In fact, the studio didn't spend a dime on network TV spots.
There were no big splashy publicity events. No magazine covers. Instead, the Fox unit worked the Internet, spending $1 million on banner ads on such well-traveled Web sites for movie buffs as AOL (AOL) and Yahoo! (YHOO) and a six-minute blood-splattered trailer on Apple's (AAPL) QuickTime site. To generate word of mouth, the studio brought the film to the Sundance Film Festival in January and made sure that Internet denizens like aint-it-cool-news.com's Harry Knowles saw it. As hoped, Knowles' site gave the movie plenty of free publicity.
As a result, 28 Days Later has become the first film since 1999's The Blair Witch Project to translate a heady Internet campaign into box-office bucks. And that was the idea from the beginning, according to Fox Searchlight President Peter Rice. He says the gritty film was designed by its 47-year-old director, Danny Boyle, as an extension of sci-fi flicks of the past -- the kinds of films to which geeky guys with high hormone levels have always flocked. Fox Searchlight, which distributes the film, paid half the costs to make it with screenwriter Andrew MacDonald's DNA Films picking up the other half.
Director Boyle, better known for his drug-drenched film Trainspotting and the Leonardo DiCaprio flick The Beach, admits he cribbed most of the film from past horror classics. Writing on Fox Searchlight's Web site, Boyle says much of the film was based on movies like George Romero's Dead trilogy -- Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead -- with some postapocalypse material drawn from novels like John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids.
IT'S A GUY THING. To make sure the message reached the film's mostly male audience, Fox spent what little money it had for TV ads on Comedy Central and the SciFi Channel. It sent a few baseball bats -- they play a key role in helping the good guys kill the crazies -- to Yahoo! for an auction. And it promoted an online presentation on its site by Alien and Gladiator director Ridley Scott, who spoke about his own movies and career. Searchlight sent out e-mail invitations to its 125,000 registered users and then featured heavy promotions for 28 Days Later alongside Scott's talk. Those ads sent readers to the six-minute trailer for the film.
Then came the premier. Fox Searchlight scheduled its film to open with sneak previews in 28 cities on Friday, June 13 -- the same weekend as the Sony's (SNE)
Charlie's Angels. According to online movie-ticket site Fandango, 40% of the premier tickets were sold online. To help stoke the mood -- and gauge the Net's impact -- Fox urged those who visited its site to wear red T-shirts, a macabre nod to the blood that flows freely throughout 28 Days Later. According to Rice, half the audience showed up in crimson togs at some of the sneaks.
Voila. The film enjoyed a surprisingly strong opening. Limiting it to 1,260 screens (vs. the 3,500 that Arnold lit up with his blazing machine guns), 28 Days Later sold $10 million in tickets its first weekend. By the second weekend -- when most films start to fade -- Fox increased the number to 1,407 screens. And the seats were packed -- it averaged a $4,314 take per showing, ranking it just behind Terminator 3 and Legally Blonde 2 and well ahead of Charlie's Angels and The Hulk. "Compared to everything else out, there it looks fresh and original," says Paul Dergerabedian, president of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "And it found its market."
MONTY'S DOUBLE. Fox Searchlight has been around this track before in its nine-year history. With clever marketing and panache, it turned the 1997 British film The Full Monty, which it distributed, into a box office hit that grossed more than more than $245 million worldwide. Now, the studio intends to keep 28 Days Later in theaters through the rest of the summer, says Fox Searchlight's Rice. It's already profitable, having been released last year in Britain, where it has already sold more than $10 million in tickets and 500,000 DVDs.
Should movie marketers be worried about losing audience share? Probably not. This is a genre film, targeted to a very specific group. But if the studios were smart, they could learn something. This scary little horror film now has what millions of dollars in advertising can't buy: Internet buzz -- and flocks of Netizens searching it out. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online