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Buzz Boosts Zombieland, Moore, Paranormal Activity; Whip It Limps

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 4, 2009 at 9:49AM

Lessons learned from the weekend box office:
Thompson on Hollywood

Lessons learned from the weekend box office:

The Internet is steering audiences away from bad buzz and toward movies they want to see.
Sony smartly debuted its $23.5 million horror comedy Zombieland at Fantastic Fest and the positive WOM virally worked its way through the Internet. The movie scored $25 million as Sony continues on a b.o. roll. Marketers posted five clips which got their message across in a way the critics couldn't. But it didn't hurt that the movie scored even better reviews than the Coens' A Serious Man (which opened well in limited release.)

Michael Moore is a force unto himself, showing yet again that the smart play in today's world is to establish an online brand and an avid following. Moore showed up on just about every talk show, sent out countless emails to his gargantuan mailing list, and posted frequent updates on his website. (Scott Bowles profiles him in USA Today.) This weekend Capitalism: A Love Story (which Moore calls C:ALS!) broadened to almost 1,000 theaters and earned $5.3 million. "My 2nd best national opening ever," tweeted Moore, "will end up in top five grossing docs of all time (along with F911 & Sicko)!!"

The Internet also spread the word from Telluride and Fantastic Fest on Oren Peli's scary $15,000 home video Paranormal Activity, which Paramount tentatively booked on 12 screens in college towns. Now thanks to positive audience response via (despite lively debate on the new ending, suggested by Steven Spielberg), it's getting a wider theatrical release (33 screens and counting).

Movies aimed at women are having a tough time gaining market traction.
Cinetic Media's Matt Dentler asks on Twitter: "After the very poor starts for "Whip It," "Jennifer's Body," and "Bright Star," what does that mean for the future of young women's movies?" I argue that each movie faced its own set of issues.

Thompson on Hollywood

Drew Barrymore didn't sell the $15-million coming-of-age movie Whip It, which grossed an estimated $4.9 million. But truth is, audiences knew that she directed it and barely stars in it. The lead, Ellen Page, is not a boxoffice draw, and the movie needs time to build word-of-mouth. (It earned a strong Cinemascore of A-, so there's room to grow.) Fox Searchlight, which is usually well-attuned to the female demo, seems to have missed the mark on this one, which played well in Toronto and earned strong reviews. "Women aren't showing up," said one studio marketing exec. "Girls don't get into roller derby." Searchlight downplayed that aspect in favor of the movie's girl power theme.

Fox recently stumbled with another female empowerment movie, Jennifer's Body, which unfortunately starred Megan Fox, a hot young star with male appeal. Inexplicably, they sold the R-rated feminist horror movie with two girls kissing. Nobody showed up.

Truth is, a big studio like Sony can spend a fortune hawking Zombieland with plenty of outdoor postings, billboards, and internet ads. But new indie distributor Apparition can't. It's first film, Jane Campion's tragic romance Bright Star, earned fest plaudits and rave reviews. But the elegantly mounted love story is struggling to pull viewers. It's playing best to young women in key art houses in New York and Los Angeles but flailing everywhere else. The problem for Apparition is that even if this movie plays well for the Academy, it needs to appear modestly successful at year's end to avoid a taint of failure when the Academy voters fill out their ballots. Its best hope is for a comeback at year's end with critics' ten best lists and awards.

This article is related to: Box Office, Directors, Genres, Independents, Studios, Fall, Michael Moore, Period, Horror , Documentaries, comedy, Overture, Apparition, Fox Searchlight, Twentieth Century Fox, Sony/Screen Gems/Sony Pictures Classics

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.