Good Reviews Can't Save Films?

Update at bottom of the file:

By Robert Marich

   June 12, 2009 – The weekend box office battle emerges as pivotal to regaining record-setting momentum and has some bad news for two films getting critics' praise.
   A Los Angeles Times article reads the tea leaves – in the form of tracking surveys – and finds the two big new films underwhelming in terms of audience appeal. Tracking surveys are movie research of audience awareness and interest in upcoming films. Thriller The Taking of Pelham 123 and Eddie Murphy comedy Imagine That are both weak in tracking, despite good reviews.
   What might top the weekend is R-rated The Hangover, which is holdover that is generating hefty one-day weekday box-office of around $6.5 million per day. That's a figure more like a weekend Sunday number for a solid opener.
   Last week’s box office was underwhelming as Will Ferrell comedy Land of the Lost opened poorly—becoming a rare big-budget family film to fall flat. Despite a pricey ad in the Super Bowl, the Universal Pictures comedy mustered just $18.8 million to rank third over that weekend, trailing Disney’s animated holdover Up.
   Today’s Los Angeles Times article by Ben Fritz notes that tracking surveys project Pelham 123 – which stars Denzel Washington and John Travolta -- will generate weekend box office only in the mid $20s million for Sony/Columbia. The title refers to a transit train that is hijacked. The tracking is even more pessimistic for Paramount’s Imagine That with a $10 million forecast—due to appeal limited to females in the family crowd.
   Marketing to Moviegoers: Second Edition explains that tracking surveys are confidential industry reports that estimate film visibility six weeks before premiere and make a pre-opening projection. A handful of film researchers generate such tracking reports, so several sets of numbers circulate at the studios.
   Sizzling box office is up 11% year-to-date (YTD), but that’s several percentage points down from a month ago, indicating some loss of momentum. Last weekend was an off frame and starting in mid July -- when mega-blockbuster The Dark Knight opened a year ago – the comparisons get tougher and it will be harder to maintain or even raise the YTD metric.
   If Imagine That does tank, it’ll be a double shame because the film about a self absorbed Dad (Eddie Murphy) who finds the importance of family has a pro-social message amid the laughs. Award-winning critic Joe Morgenstern praises the Murphy comedy with “raise those lowered expectations a bit.” But alas the film apparently lacks boy appeal, according to tracking surveys (the lead young actor is a girl).
   The family crowd that is needed to make Imagine That a hit is not significantly influence by reviews. Indeed, reviewers are disappearing from traditional media and popping up on the Web. On that trend, a recent New York Times article film finds film distributors are more willing to use web critic quotes in movie ads, which are suspect because web ethics standards are lax. However, web pundits now police critics as kind of truth squads.
   UPDATE: Weekend BO followed forecasts, except Imagine That did even worse than low expectations: The Hangover was #1 with $32.8 mil., Pelham was #3 with $23.4 mil. and Imagine That #6 with a meager $5.5 mil.

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