'King Kong' Mighty But No Monster
"Why, the whole world will pay to see this."—Carl Denham, King Kong (1933)

King Kong did not scale expectations that were as high as the Empire State Building, but the giant gorilla had some reason to pound his chest.

Director Peter Jackson's $207 million remake of the of the seminal 1933 creature feature grabbed $50.1 million over the weekend from around 7,500 screens at 3,568 theaters. It ranks as the fourth highest-grossing first weekend on record for a December release, behind the last two Lord of the Rings movies and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Since bowing Wednesday, the three-hour thrill ride has amassed $66.2 million in five days, below distributor Universal Pictures' publicly-stated benchmark, the $75 million of Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and much lower than media and industry hype that had hoped for over $100 million.

"I think the industry and the media did not understand how a three hour movie performs," said Marc Shmuger, vice chairman of Universal. "Take Lord of the Rings out because that comes with the Tolkien nuts, and there aren't any examples. It's not surprising that we didn't understand it. As crazy as it is, the only one you can point to is Titanic. [King Kong] is writing its own pattern."

Shmuger noted how Kong enjoyed a bigger Saturday bump over Friday (40 percent) than any of the Lord of the Rings pictures or Titanic. "It suggests growing momentum behind the numbers," he added. "I'm feeling incredibly bullish."

Universal's exit polling on Saturday indicated that Kong's demographics skewed slightly male (53 percent), allaying concerns that it wouldn't play to women, and over 25 years old (55 percent). The "story," the "action" and the "special effects" were the top reasons people saw Kong, while, in reaction-tracker CinemaScore's surveys, moviegoers gave the picture an overall grade of "A-."

Still, King Kong, from its budget to its release pattern, is the kind of picture designed to devour the box office. The fact that it's not quite the behemoth it was positioned to be is a disappointment, especially given the resources and time tied up in such a production. Fortunately for Kong, the opening was powerful enough to establish a likely box office reign through the holidays—December is less about opening weekends than it is capitalizing on each day of Christmas vacation.

Despite the size of the production and Universal's showmanship, industry and media expectations were inflated, with reasons ranging from studio rivalry to a desire to see business turn around in a down year. Similar pictures to King Kong, like the remakes of Godzilla and Mighty Joe Young in 1998, failed in the past. Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park was an exception in part because of novelty but also because it was about humans experiencing dinosaurs for the first time—humans were presented as the main characters, the entry points for the audience, not the beasts as was the case with Kong's marketing.

Transforming the 1933 version's lecherous beast into a sensitive, realistic-looking gorilla did not help matters. Despite the digital bombast, Kong appears smaller than the stop-motion classic. He looks like a gorilla simply shown at giant scale, not the monster people know and love. What's more, while the original Kong is one of the most famous movies in history, it's a picture that resonates mostly for its innovation and influence—at its root, it was a well made B picture—and it's not a premise that screams "three-hour running time."

On top of the domestic haul, King Kong raked in $83 million from 8,123 playdates in 55 foreign markets, which Universal said was the ninth biggest overseas launch on record. That brings the five-day worldwide tally to $149.2 million. "What we're seeing internationally is what we're seeing domestically," said Schmuger. "We went from a $15.5 million Friday to a $24.5 million Saturday. The movie's momentum is building."

The Family Stone was the only wide release to venture out in the shadow of the ape, and the $18 million Christmas-set comedy-drama was greeted with a solid $12.5 million from 2,466 venues. Distributor 20th Century Fox's Friday surveys suggested that 77 percent of the audience was female, which Fox head of distribution Bruce Snyder said was his counter-programming target demographic. "I was hoping for $10 million, which for pre-Christmas would have been terrific," Snyder claimed.

Last weekend's champion, The Chronicles of Narnia, retreated 51 percent to $31.8 million. With $113.2 million in ten days, the family fantasy is firmly established to continue its box office crusade through the holidays.


• 12/19/05 - 'Brokeback' Wrangles Strong Numbers in Expansion

• 12/15/05 - 'King Kong' a Gentle Giant on Opening Day

• 12/13/05 - 'King Kong Looms with Monster Release

• 12/12/05 - 'Narnian' Delight: Passion of the 'Lion' Pays Off

• 12/22/03 - 'King' of the World: $250M in Five Days

• Review - King Kong


• All Time - Top December Openings

• Creature Features

Weekend Box Office Results

NOTE: This report was originally published on Sunday, Dec. 18 and was updated on Monday, Dec. 19 with actual grosses.