News

'Just Like Heaven' No Cure for Box Office Blahs

by Brandon Gray
Reese Witherspoon in Just Like Heaven
September 19, 2005

Just Like Heaven couldn't lift the box office out of the usual September limbo, but overall business was ahead of the comparable frame in 2004 for the third weekend in a row.

With a super-saturation release of 3,508 theaters, the $58 million supernatural romantic comedy attracted $16.4 million, below industry expectations like all of the weekend's new releases. It's a far cry from star Reese Witherspoon's Sweet Home Alabama, which scored the September opening record with $35.6 million three years ago. According to distributor DreamWorks' exit polling, 77 percent of the audience was female, and 52 percent was over 25 years old.

"Obviously, we didn't make materials compelling to males; we didn't reach them," said DreamWorks' head of distribution, Jim Tharp. "I think Reese Witherspoon is tremendously popular, especially with females. They showed up, but we weren't able to broaden the demographic."

A recurring problem with romantic comedies these days is a lack of male partners equal to the women, and Witherspoon's love interest, Mark Ruffalo, was weak, compounded by the fact that his character is at the center of the action. Just Like Heaven's poster enhanced Ruffalo's innocuousness with a tiny full-body shot of him looking up to Witherspoon's giant head, flowers held meekly behind his back. What's worse, Witherspoon gazes straight ahead as if Ruffalo didn't exist.

If guys can't relate to the male lead, then they're less likely to get dragged to these movies. Not to mention, strong characters are more appealing to women as well. The most successful romantic comedies of recent memory were the ones where the male lead wasn't a schlub, but an active participant, such as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Hitch and even Sweet Home Alabama, despite its Witherspoon-centric poster.

First impressions are crucial when courting audiences, and Just Like Heaven's initial trailer was too gloomy for a movie meant to be uplifting and romantic. The set-up depicts Witherspoon's doctor as hard-working and good-natured, but then, not only is she apparently killed off and turned into an ineffectual ghost, she never had a life to begin with because she didn't have a boyfriend. That wrong-headed and morbid emphasis rendered the rest of the trailer lame, especially the tacked-on comedic stylings of Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder. The second trailer lightened things up, suggesting the situation wasn't as grim as first thought, but the characters were still mostly passive and bickering.

Outside of Ghost, the supernatural romance sub-genre has yet to produce a blockbuster, with commercial faltering (13 Going on 30, also featuring Ruffalo, and this summer's Bewitched) or failure (Meet Joe Black, Two of a Kind) the norm. The supernatural works in horror or for broader "what if?" comedies like Freaky Friday and Bruce Almighty. When it comes to love, audiences tend to keep it real.

DreamWorks, among the many woes of its live action unit, has yet to mount a successful romantic movie. Their romances have ranged from disappointments (The Mexican, Forces of Nature) to duds (Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!).

Lord of War stalled out of the gate with $9.4 million from 2,814 locations, significantly less than star Nicolas Cage's previous crime movie, Matchstick Men from Sept. 2003. The $50 million gun-running comedy, independently-produced but distributed by Lions Gate, fared not much better than the last arms-dealing comedy, Chevy Chase's Deal of a Century from 1983, relatively speaking. Lions Gate's research suggested that 60 percent of moviegoers were male, and 60 percent were over 25.

Nicolas Cage in Lord of War
The marketing consisted of clips of Cage's character making quips about arms dealing, and chatter about how he's hiding his job from his girlfriend. It lacked a point, a storyline and the thrill of Cage's rise before the fall. The latter can be an important selling point for hit crime sagas, from Goodfellas to Blow.

Lord of War is the third picture written and directed by Andrew Niccol and his third box office bust after Gattaca, which found an audience in ancillary markets, and Simone, which did not. The Lord of War poster art imitated his earlier written work, The Truman Show. The Truman Show's one sheet was a close-up of star Jim Carrey, composed of hundreds of frames from the movie. Lord of War used hundreds of guns and other weapons to form a close-up of Cage.

Cry Wolf plucked a sheepish $4.4 million from 1,789 theaters. Distributed under Focus Features' genre label, Rogue Pictures, the slasher picture, a result of a contest sponsored by Universal and Chrysler, reportedly cost $1 million to make. Exit polling indicated that 66 percent of the audience was under 21, and 64 percent was female.

An Unfinished Life floundered in its nationwide expansion, corralling $2.1 million from 753 locations. Director Lasse Hallstrom's long-delayed $30 million drama starring Robert Redford was saddled with distributor Miramax's seemingly haphazard release strategy, which mixed extensive sneak previews with a momentum-killing staggered roll-out.

In limited release, two movies about raising the dead performed on the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Playing at two theaters in New York City, two in Los Angeles and one in Toronto, Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride unearthed $385,078, averaging a lively $77,016 per site. Warner Bros.' stop-motion animated feature will roll out to about 3,000 venues on Sept. 23. By comparison, Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas made $191,232 at two theaters on its opening weekend twelve years ago, for a per theater average that would equal nearly $150,000 today, adjusted for ticket price inflation.

On the other hand, Miramax and Dimension struck out with inventory clearance title, Venom. Formerly known as Backwater and The Reaper, the horror picture slithered to $519,489 from 489 theaters, bogged down by a generic look as well as Dimension's sudden retraction from wide release this past week.

RELATED ARTICLES
9/15/05 - Scott Holleran: Robert Wise and Witherspoon's Consent

Review - Just Like Heaven
Review - An Unfinished Life

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