A Hairy Run for King Kong?

The remake boasts a hot director and fairly favorable reviews. But its slow start at the box office wasn't in Universal's script

By Ronald Grover

The Kong watch has begun. Less than a week after Universal released Peter Jackson's much-anticipated remake of King Kong, the Hollywood boo-birds are wondering if it could end up one of the biggest movie bombs in recent years.

Now, "bomb" is a relative term as it applies to the big ape with the slinky girlfriend. In its opening five days, the Universal film grossed $66.2 million at the U.S. box office. That's no small bunch of bananas, but it adds up to far less than the $100 million some in Hollywood had predicted the film would generate in its first weekend.


  That could spell bad news for General Electric's (GE ) NBC Universal unit, already shell-shocked because ratings for its once top-ranked TV network have dropped by 12% this year. Now, it looks as if the film unit could have a problem with a movie that cost more than $207 million to produce and $50 million more to promote.

Universal still predicts King Kong's box office will pick up as more kids get out of school for the holidays -- and it still mentions the fearsome primate in the same breath as Shrek 2, which started slowly before turning into a $436 million blockbuster. Yet, those with knowledge of Universal's financing for the film say the studio will have to hustle.

With that $207 million budget -- and director Peter Jackson getting 20% of the take -- King Kong likely needs to gross more than $250 million in the U.S. market simply to break even. That's looking harder and harder, especially as Walt Disney's (DIS ) film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe continues to pack in crowds.


  That film grossed $112.5 million in its second week and is perhaps siphoning off potential money from the ape. But the big problem with King Kong is its more than three-hour running time, say Hollywood insiders, which reduces by about one the number of showings it has per day at most theaters. That adds up.

Why is the flick so long? Universal had little control over Jackson, the hot ticket in town following his three spectacularly successful Lord of the Ring flicks. Universal paid him a staggering $20 million to direct King Kong and gave him great latitude in making it. No one at the studio seemed able to tell the man behind the camera to shorten it.

On top of that, production costs ballooned from $185 million, to $207 million (some say closer to $230 million), as Jackson added fight scenes between Kong and dinosaurs and other action filler. In the end, the critics liked -- but didn't necessarily love -- what Jackson had wrought. Meanwhile, the film's dramatic trailers, with a snarling, leaping Kong, may have put off some female moviegoers, Hollywood insiders believe.


  The studio lined up partnerships with everyone from Burger King to MasterCard to promote its film, which very well could have the kind of legs that Fox's 1997 Titanic had as it played and played and played its way past $600 million.

Still, sources close to Universal say the studio is worrying it could face a write-down if the film doesn't catch fire before the kids start putting away their holiday presents. Plenty more hot movies are set for release shortly, not the least of which is Steven Spielberg's highly anticipated -- and critically adored -- Munich.

For the big ape with the human girlfriend, that could mean one more battle it hardly needs.

Grover is BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau chief

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