No Great Expectations for a Movie Launch

To make a box-office splash in Hollywood, lowball the estimates for the first weekend's take. Then you have room to look like a star

Only in Hollywood could a film like Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull rake in a massive $151.9 million over its opening four-day weekend and still be called by some a disappointment. How is that possible? Well, there were some in Hollywood who were whispering before its opening that Indy was expected to do better, maybe even set a record for a Memorial Day weekend. It's called the Expectations Game, a dark art that Hollywood practices with the same seriousness as a political candidate running for office.

Anyone following Hillary or Obama on the primary circuit understands the dance: You set expectations as low as possible, telling anyone who asks that you'll be happy to eke out a small win. The media buys in, and then you revel in the smashing win that follows. In politics, it's called spin.

It's the same in Hollywood. When Harrison Ford took his whip out of cold storage, studio watchers figured the first Indiana Jones in 19 years would sell somewhere between $142 million and $175 million in tickets, according to Nikki Finke's popular Deadline Hollywood Daily, a must-read for many celluloid moguls.

Aw, Shucks. It Won't Be Nothin'

Why the disparity between the numbers? Simply put, if you're a studio like Paramount (VIAB), which released the film, you want the press to publish the lower number. It's better to promote a film following its opening if it has blown right past expectations. And if you're competing against Indy, maybe you can hobble the film by spinning the studio watchers so they set expectations so high it can't possibly make that number. When the day-after newspaper articles are written, the hope is that reporters write that the film may not be as big as folks thought.

Shocked? Remember, these are films with megabucks on the line. Indy cost $185 million to make and a further $150 million to market, according to a Goldman Sachs (GS) report. The opening weekend is usually an indicator of just how much a film will gross (films generally do three or four times their opening weekend). Indy, of course, was one of the largest openings ever. But even if a film tanks at the box office, studios hope to hide behind that fact by saying it opened better than the lowered expectations they had set for it when they first green-lighted the flick, says one former studio executive. "You want people to think: 'We knew this. We have it covered,'" he says. Has he ever helped tamp down expectations of his studio's movies? "It was never mentioned in a meeting," he says, "but we discussed it in the hallways."

The expectations game this summer has been especially tough on some very highly regarded films. Brandon Gray, the publisher of online tracker Box Office Mojo, figures the eventual take for Walt Disney's (DIS) The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian might end up being hampered by the thought that it didn't live up to projections that it would meet the $65 million opening weekend of the first Narnia film in 2005. (It still sold a hefty $55 million that week, and has grossed more than $150 million worldwide so far.) Same for the overhyped megabust Speed Racer, which opened at a woeful $18 million even after Warner Brothers (TWX) managed to talk down the predictions from $40 million to the mid-$20 million range.

Then again, you can make the expectations game work to your advantage. Paramount and first-time producer Marvel Studios (MVL) told reporters that the superhero movie Iron Man would open at around $60 million, when other folks had the number higher. It opened with $98.6 million, and has been a freight train ever since.

Start with Some Serious Research

So who are the players in the expectations game? "I get spun by people paid by the studios—agents, people involved with the picture," says Finke. "I get spun all weekend." The studios begin with some serious research, usually provided by one of a handful of consumer research companies that include Nielsen's fabled NRG opinion research and online-based OTX. Both survey likely fans in the weeks leading up to a movie's release and then add variables such as the time of the year that the flick is being released. The research, says Kevin Goetz, president of OTX's motion picture group, is meant to give studios an idea of where they could put more ad money in order to lure specific groups the tracking numbers show may not want to see the film.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? Well, nothing's simple when it comes to Hollywood. Geotz says that in recent years tracking numbers for the films have become "a kind of parlor game tied to the opening weekend of a film." His research service, which surveys 1,500 random consumers a week for the four weeks leading up to the film's release, gives its numbers only to the studio that hires it. But studio executives tell me that the services' tracking numbers are e-mailed around town, where they are spun by folks with a film to protect. Those numbers are picked up by armchair box-office gurus on the Internet or reporters who use opening weekends to create sports-like scoreboards. Indeed, there are so many projections flying around the industry these days that Box Office Mojo's Gray says he has abandoned his site's own forecast feature because it had gotten way too nutty.

Still, for those of you into such things, let's play a little game called Guess the Opening Weekend. The flick in question is the much ballyhooed Sex and the City, the onetime HBO series that opens May 30. Carrie & Friends are getting more TV airtime these days than John McCain. There are wall-to-wall ads, and the film has tie-in deals with the likes of Mercedes (DAI). Oh, yes, and product placements with bag, jewelry, and other high-end designers that I hope my wife won't notice.

But how will it open? Sources tells me that the studio behind it, Warner Brothers' New Line unit, has been whispering that they're expecting north of $25 million. Competitors have countered with a projection of $40 million, tops. I'm going to say $30 million. I plucked that number because The Devil Wears Prada opened at $27 million, and I'm figuring Sex is having a much bigger send-off. Then again, maybe I just got spun.

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