Puppets Can't Dance: 'Team America' Bows Below Expectations
by Brandon Gray
October 19, 2004
America had a clear choice at the multiplex between the every opportunity offender Team America: World Police and the romantic remake Shall We Dance, a choice of, at root, tearing down versus lifting up. The result: a draw—for now.
Debuting in third place behind holdovers Shark Tale and Friday Night Lights, Paramount's Team America yanked $12.1 million from 2,539 theaters over the weekend, solid for a $30 million R-rated puppet movie from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone but well below the hype and industry tracking that had it pegged for at least a high teen millions bow.
"Obviously, the R rating restricted anyone under 18," Paramount head of distribution Wayne Lewellen told Box Office Mojo. "We were looking at $12-15 million going into the weekend. I know the industry had us in the high teens or more." He added, "The initial appeal was the following of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and I think the publicity certainly got people interested."
Males comprised 63% of Team America's audience, while surprisingly 61% were over the age of 25, studio exit polling indicated. A bit over 80% of moviegoers rated the picture either "excellent" or "very good" and gave it a "definite recommend." Paramount held a sneak preview on Saturday, Oct. 9 at about 650 theaters. It played to 65-70% seating capacity. 70% of attendees were male and more than half were over 25. As always with sneaks, proceeds were counted towards a studio stable mate—in this case, boosting Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow by approximately $400,000 that weekend.
The press did spill a lot of ink on Team America, raising moviegoer awareness but to middling avail. The hullabaloo ranged from Parker and Stone's battle with the MPAA over an extended puppet sex scene to get an R rating instead of an NC-17 to how the movie made fun of the War on Terror and liberal celebrities like Michael Moore, Alec Baldwin and Sean Penn to Penn's critical public letter to Parker and Stone about how the lampooners were trivializing serious issues. The sense was that the puppet sex and violence would draw young males, while the skewering of current events and outspoken stars would hook everyone else.
The confrontational bite—the kind that worked effectively for Fahrenheit 9/11—was not evident in Team America's marketing. The teaser trailer named the public figures that were "all going to be really, really mad," but the full-length trailer and TV spots wimped out, opting for a general parody of action pictures instead. Last year, Scary Movie 3 grabbed a record October opening of $48.1 million, but it openly took on specific movies and people.
The Thunderbirds-inspired marionette mayhem did handily out-gross the live-action Thunderbirds adaptation's $6.8 million lifetime tally from earlier this year. However, it sold fewer tickets than the 1999 South Park movie, which made $23.1 million in its first five days at 2,128 sites en route to $52.0 million, and Paramount's R-rated October 2002 release of Jackass: The Movie, which riled up a $22.8 million opening weekend at 2,509 theaters on its way to $64.3 million.
It's clear that the under-17 set will still see an R-rated picture if motivated enough: South Park and Jackass benefited from being directly based on popular cable shows, but they—among others like the $28.1 million bow of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake on the same weekend last year.
Team America had some of its thunder stolen by travel company Orbitz' Thunderbirds-steeped commercials and Comedy Central's Crank Yankers, where many get their naughty puppet fix. Bottom line, though, Team America was too insider in respect to movies—the clichés of Jerry Bruckheimer productions—and too nihilistic—satire can work when it's targeted and has something to say. It represents the kind of boutique humor that fizzles theatrically but might find a larger audience on TV and home video among fan boys and frat boys.
Counter-programmer Shall We Dance waltzed away with $11.8 million at 1,772 venues, beating industry expectations that the $50 million remake of the 1997 Japanese picture of the same name wouldn't crack eight digits. Old-fashioned romance is often written off, yet the demand is there and leads to those "surprise hits" like this past summer's The Notebook ($13.5 million opening and $80.6 million total) that ought not to surprise anyone.
"The overall reaction was excellent and went across all demos," Miramax head of distribution Mike Rudnitsky told Box Office Mojo. "The sneak previews seemed to really help sell the movie as the exit polls were the same as this weekend. We'll now be able to support the picture further moving forward."
The star power of Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon helped as the cast was cited as the No. 1 reason to see the picture, according to studio exit polling. Moviegoers predictably skewed older—55% over 30—and female (about two-thirds), and they generally liked what they saw as 92% rated it either "excellent" or "very good" and 72% would "definitely recommend" it.
"The story is very enjoyable, upbeat," Rudnitsky added. "The music had a lot to do with it. The movie has a lot of good humor that people can't help but like."
Riding high off the success of Chicago, Gere is a box office draw in romances—he even opened 2000's treacly Autumn in New York to $11.0 million at 2,255 sites on course to $37.8 million—and other female-appeal pictures like Unfaithful. Sarandon is no commercial slouch in domestic roles after such movies as Stepmom and The Banger Sisters.
Lopez was seen by many as a commercial liability to Shall We Dance in the wake of Gigli and her very public personal life, which were perceived as strikes against Miramax's Jersey Girl ($8.3 million opening at 1,520 theaters, $25.3 million total) earlier this year. However, less than two years ago, she was considered one of the few actresses that could open a picture, riding high on such successes as Maid in Manhattan and The Wedding Planner, and her celebrity persona incorporates dancing even though she's never made a dance movie before.
Peaking at 268 theaters in 1997, the original Shall We Dance? was a sleeper hit for Miramax, earning $9.5 million, and was America's highest-grossing Asian language picture until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came along. It has yet to be released on DVD.
Miramax and Shall We Dance director Peter Chelsom previously saw better-than-expected results for their October 2001 romantic comedy Serendipity, which debuted to $13.3 million at 2,601 theaters and closed with $50.3 million. Shall We Dance's legs could be at least as long. On the same weekend last year, for instance, the adult-appeal thriller Runaway Jury managed $11.8 million (from a much wider 2,815 theaters), yet wound up with $49.4 million by the end of its run.
In other words, though Team America edged it out on opening weekend, Shall We Dance should gross more by a wide margin in the end.
In general, holdovers gave up less ground than expected, led by a still hungry Shark Tale. DreamWorks' $75 million computer animated feature eased 30% to $22.0 million, claiming the No. 1 spot for the third weekend in a row—the second picture of 2004 to have such a reign after The Passion of the Christ. With $118.7 million in the till after 17 days, it's swimming slightly ahead of Ice Age at the same point—a picture that ultimately grossed $176.4 million.
Friday Night Lights retreated 40% to $12.2 million, scoring a winning $37.8 million in 10 days. Ladder 49 stoked its total to a solid $53.7 million after an $8.5 million weekend, down 35%. Taxi showed some legs other than the Brazilian supermodel variety with a 34% dip to $7.9 million and $23.9 million in 11 days, but The Forgotten enjoyed the strongest hold among major wide releases. The Julianne Moore thriller dipped 21% to $6.0 million, pushing its total to $57.2 million in 24 days.
Overall business came in at $97.5 million, the second highest tally the frame has seen but down 15% from $114.1 million last year.
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