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What's behind the opening-weekend box-office mania? Does marketing hold too much power over the fate of a film? Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with Mandalay's chairman, Peter Guber; Bob Levin, president of MGM Distribution; journalist Richard Natale; long-time studio executive Lucy Fisher; actor and producer Michael Douglas; Sony Corporation of America's chief executive, Howard Stringer; and Bill Mechanic, former Fox studio chief.

one of Hollywood's most successful actors and producers, he produced the 1975 Oscar-winning film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

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My mother knows when a film opens in the top five. Did being crazy about the numbers spread to the audience, too?

... I find it very bizarre. You look at most of these companies now, these multinational companies, be they Japanese, or French, Canadian, Australian, English, whatever they might be, some American. The motion picture business, in most cases, represents maybe 3 percent to 5 percent of the gross earnings of these companies. It's nothing. Nothing. Yet it's the locomotive for this whole company. And they take pride [in] these statistics that have come out, which is all part of the Top 50 lists. You know, every magazine's got the 10 most beautiful, the 10 richest -- it's become a popular device. And the top performing pictures has become an instrumental part and is crucial. They build their marketing campaigns off of it, and they build a lot of their financing for their future projects off their performance, that first week performance.


There's no time now for a movie to breathe. Because by the next weekend, there are three, four, five other pictures coming in, each, maybe, who spent an average of maybe $25 million for their marketing alone. So you don't have a chance to find your legs. There used to be something called word of mouth, which would allow a picture to be discovered. ...

richard natale
a freelance economic reporter who covers the film industry for The Los Angeles Times

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Since movies are created to be marketed, therefore the marketing takes precedence over the movie itself, in many cases. If you're opening a movie in 3,000 theaters and usually 5,000-6,000 screens on its opening weekend, you have to spend a great deal of money to make sure that you fill those theaters, because there's another movie coming up right behind you. And if you don't fill those theaters, you are going to start to lose screens like that, and your movie is dead in the water. So you have to open very big. The bigger you want to open, the more money you have to spend. If you've spent $100 million on a movie, you have to spend another $20 million to open it. ...

It seems as though they're competing against each other's marketing campaigns.

The marketing campaign really has come since the late 1970s, since the advent of mass national distribution. The marketing campaign really leads the movie. Most scripts don't get approved unless the marketing department chimes in and says, "Yes, I can sell this effectively." If the marketing department can't sell it effectively, the movie probably doesn't get made.

she has been a top executive at MGM, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Columbia TriStar, and Sony Pictures, and has been behind such films as "Jerry Maguire," "Men in Black," "As Good As It Gets," "Gladiator," and many others.

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In the olden days when I started off, the marketing and the production were much more separate entities. In fact, I worked at Warner Brothers for 14 years and I complained to my bosses ... "Why can't they be more co-joined?" Because I felt, as a production executive, sometimes I didn't have enough control over the marketing.

Gradually I had more authority. I got it, but I think there was a definite, deliberate reason to keep them separate at that point, which was one side should make what they think are the best movies and the other one should sell them the best way they can; as opposed to now, where there's committees at every single studio that co-join those two separate functions. And if the marketing people don't think they can sell a movie, no one will make the movie. ...

How did the pressure of opening weekend come about?

... There's always been pressure, I'm sure. You read any of those books about the 1930s, and people were always going to their previews in Riverside on the train and they were always worrying about opening weekend also. But because, I would say -- and there are those who know more than I do about this aspect of it -- because movies are sold primarily through television now and television is so expensive, if you're going to open a movie broadly, you're going to buy a lot of television time across the country.

If you open a movie and platform it in a few theaters, New York, and L.A. for instance, then ... the opening weekend isn't as crucial, because it has time for the word of mouth to catch up to it. If you have a really strong movie, you might be able to do it that way. But once you have bought television time across the country, the movie that's coming out next week is going to buy the time the next week, and you won't be able to afford to keep buying the time week after week. So you only have that window of the first week, unless by some chance, the word of mouth is so strong that it can overcome. ...

So sometimes you can have "strong legs," as they call them, and continue on even if you didn't have a gigantic opening weekend. But if you have a really bad opening weekend, it's just very hard for the studio to keep spending the money, hoping that they can figure out a different way to get the audience's attention. ...

Peter Guber
former studio chief of Columbia Pictures and former chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures, he is now chairman of Mandalay Pictures

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The importance of marketing, in terms of success of a film, is like air to all of us. It is a crucial resource that you must be breathing from the beginning. The minute you start the process of deciding to make a film and you're communicating that vision to anyone, you're in the process of selling. If you don't understand that, you're not in show business. You're just not.

The idea is you create a perception in the marketplace to a whole set of constituencies. It can be talent constituencies, managers and attorneys, it can be the media, it can be the exhibitors, it can be the distributors -- a whole set of people who help catalyze the process of getting the film made, both by their design and by serendipity. ...

The film has to be good. But many films that are good don't succeed to their full merit, because they'd not been marketed well. And I think that's an important ingredient. Marketing and filmmaking are, in a sense, inextricably tied together at the hip.

So it seems like sometimes you're almost competing against the other marketing campaigns more than the films.

On any given weekend in the summer, there's such a confluence of films bombarding the North American media for attention, the cacophony is deafening. To try to get separation, to try to get awareness, to try to penetrate the noise, to try to create a sense of design for the film, to try to draw in the core audience, takes enormous numbers of dollars, enormous energy. A big film in a big studio that's maybe cost $100 million, the marketing resources -- and I'm not talking about just financial capital, but intellectual capital -- that are designed and deployed in making that film successful, can suck the air out of the rest of the company.

bob levin
formerly the president of worldwide theatrical marketing for Disney, he is now the president of worldwide marketing and distribution at MGM

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Talk about that weekly horse race for the marketing departments.

It's very intense. Someone told me the first week I came into the business, "Understand one thing about your role as a person in marketing. If a movie is successful, it was a great movie. If a movie fails, you did a bad job marketing it." And I've never known that philosophy to ever change over my period of time doing it. So there's a great intensity that's brought to that opening weekend, where the marketing department is really responsible for getting the movie opened correctly.

There are few war stories that you can find where a movie [that] has not opened well turned itself around because the movie is of such quality. A bad opening will usually kill a movie and kills all the potentials of the movie. Because while ... the preponderance of income and the revenue strings in the movie business today are no longer from that domestic box office ... the money really is coming in from worldwide box office -- sales to television, home video, DVD and all those other revenue strings on a global basis are so driven by that success or failure in the domestic box office. And that is so driven by that opening. It becomes critical for the entire life of the movie. ...

What kind of budgets are set aside for marketing, and how has it changed?

The MPAA, which is the Motion Picture Association of the studios, last year said that the average movie cost somewhere around $28 million, I think, to market. So that's the average movie of all the movies released. About $3 million to $5 million dollars of that is in producing materials and running all of the elements of a marketing campaign; the balance being in the actual cost of media [i.e., advertising]. And that has gone up dramatically.

I think I can remember when I first joined the business in 1984, you felt comfortable releasing -- even in the middle of summer, where you had some real ambition for the film -- with maybe a $10 million to $12 million total marketing budget. I would say that the films that really have ambition being released this summer are in the $40 million range. So that's where it's changed.

chairman and CEO of Sony Corporation of America since 1998, he had a distinguished 30-year career as a journalist, producer and executive at CBS

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People say, "Why don't you spend $20 million less on marketing, because you'd save $20 million and you wouldn't have to make so much money?" Well, part of the problem is that the world of journalism is also part of the world of hype. So if you don't spend a lot of money on marketing, you don't generate big box office, which is translated in so many eyes as one of the criteria of hits.

If I had a $100 million picture and I only spent $10 million marketing it, for instance, I haven't really saved $10 million, because people will start saying, "If you didn't have a big opening weekend, you weren't a success." And if I'm not a success, I can't sell it to television or cable, and I threaten my video sales and DVD sales, and so forth and so on.

So there is a sort of spiral of pressure to drive that opening weekend. There are lots of debates in the studios about how much marketing cost is too much marketing cost. I guess with "Godzilla" and perhaps even with "Pearl Harbor," if you hype it too much, you run the risk of raising expectations so high that the audience is going to be disappointed whatever. So you have to get the balance right.

But you can't afford to let a picture creep onto the air unless you've spent nothing on it, and you're afraid of it or ashamed of it. You have to push it, because everybody involved wants to believe that you believe in it. The writer does, the actors do, the director does. ... No matter who you are; you can be the most artistic director, a $2 million opening will be a failure to that person.

bill mechanic
chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Filmed Entertainment from 1994 to 2000, he is now an independent producer

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How about the fascination with the weekly box office?

[It is] one of the factors that have made the movie business the worst business to be in, beyond these companies getting too big and not caring. [It] started with "E.T." ... The Wall Street Journal runs "Winners and Losers," [and] it just creates a mind-set of, "Who wants to go see a loser?" That loser might be the best movie on the list.

In the past, you could start a movie off and it would do OK, and it was good. Week on week, you could pick up business or stay there. Now, if you're not number one or two -- and people are lying about what's number one and two half the time -- you're pretty much dead meat. In two weeks, you're not even in the theater.

It happens all around. I'll get a call from my mother, [who] says, "Hear your movie didn't open well." Why should she care? It doesn't have anything to do with the picture itself. ...


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