LOS ANGELES — On paper, they were destined to be mega-hits. “The Tourist,” “How Do You Know” and “Gulliver’s Travels” should have heated up the box office during the cold and snowy final weeks of the year, drawing audiences to the multiplex with the promise of A-list stars, romance and, in one case, family-friendly comedy.
Instead, all three films — each of which cost $100 million or more to produce — underperformed or downright flopped with critics and U.S. moviegoers, squelching holiday cheer at two of the major Hollywood studios as smaller-budget projects such as “True Grit” and “Black Swan” enjoyed sold-out Christmas-week runs.
The lesson for moviemakers? These days, there’s no such thing as a sure thing.
“In all three cases, the films skew to the classic model for a financially successful movie: well-known names, large budgets, prime release dates. What really happened in each case is the movie missed the mark,” said Bruce Nash, president of Nash Information Services, a movie financial tracking and research company. “In all three cases, it was a quality problem.”
Though “The Tourist,” “How Do You Know” and “Gulliver’s Travels” have little in common, all three were following formulas that have reaped serious coin. “The Tourist” — which paired two of the biggest movie stars on the planet, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, in a romantic spy caper — could be compared to Jolie’s 2005 two-hander with Brad Pitt, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” whose domestic gross was $186 million.
“Gulliver’s Travels,” starring the likable Jack Black, echoes the big-comedic-star-trapped-in-a-foreign-land model that worked so well for Ben Stiller and the “Night at the Museum” franchise, two movies that together brought in upward of $427 million in U.S. ticket sales for distributor Fox.
As for the Reese Witherspoon-starrer “How Do You Know,” Sony was looking for a repeat of the kind of success it has enjoyed with writer-director James L. Brooks’ earlier adult-oriented comedies, such as the Oscar-winning 1997 film “As Good as It Gets” or 2009’s star-studded “It’s Complicated” from director Nancy Meyers. That film, featuring Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, grossed more than $112 million.
Whereas in years past movie marketers have been able to sell even poorly executed films with glossy campaigns, audiences can now tell when Hollywood is trying to mask a weak film with a splashy veneer.
“It’s become harder to hide a bad movie,” said a former studio head who asked for anonymity. “They are savvier to our marketing techniques.”
Sources close to “The Tourist” said the problems with the spy caper-action thriller that was financed for a steep $100 million became apparent during early research screenings. Audiences liked the film, according to one source who asked for anonymity, but were unable to describe it to others.
The movie opened to $16 million, making it the lowest wide-release debut for both Jolie and Depp since 2007.
King declined to comment for this story, but Sony, which marketed and distributed the movie, remains optimistic about the film’s overall performance. “I don’t think it’s in terrible shape — it’s doing really well overseas,” said Sony Vice Chairman Jeff Blake, pointing to the $65 million “The Tourist” has taken in internationally.
The film, which received three surprise Golden Globe nominations in mid-December (Jolie and Depp were recognized in the lead comedy acting categories, and the film itself was nominated for best movie comedy), now has grossed $54 million domestically, a number that might rescue it from the disaster category. Still, it’s likely less than what producer Graham King had in mind when he paired Depp and Jolie, two of today’s few remaining actors who routinely command hefty salaries thanks to their broad audience appeal.
“‘The Tourist’ just seemed so transparent that it was a ripoff of something else,” says Paula Silver, former president of marketing for Columbia Pictures. “I think Johnny Depp has an amazing following, but it just looked like too much of something you’ve seen.”
Similarly, Sony’s “How Do You Know” was populated with A-list stars including Witherspoon and Jack Nicholson — whose salaries helped drive up the cost of the production — yet after three weekends in release, the $100-million film had grossed only about $25 million. It’s the second consecutive stumble from Brooks, whose previous outing, 2004’s “Spanglish,” was not warmly received by audiences, earning $42 million.
“Whenever it isn’t coming together, you’re worried,” says Blake, acknowledging that “How Do You Know’s” generic title might have been part of the problem in attracting audiences. “It’s always part movie, part marketing. Was it a title issue that people didn’t grasp onto? It was a little amorphous.”
With “Gulliver’s Travels’” storied literary lineage, its title certainly wasn’t a problem, but with the 3-D movie’s opening on Christmas Day to a paltry two-day $6.3-million gross, something clearly went wrong. Fox studio chiefs Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos declined to comment on the film’s performance, but a studio spokesman said of the $115-million project: “It’s too early to write a postmortem on this movie, but we are seeing that it is performing much better internationally, and we are very encouraged by that.”
He added that the movie, which he said is playing well to filmgoers younger than 18, has outgrossed its domestic take internationally, taking in $47 million since it bowed Dec. 23 in various territories and suggested that the premise, taken from Jonathan Swift’s satire, resonates more with audiences overseas.
“Perhaps it is because the book has more cultural relevance abroad, so it is a more recognizable concept at first blush,” the spokesman said.
With so many varied entertainment options competing for consumers’ attention, movies released at the end of the year need more than just the right title or a savvy marketing campaign — they also need to offer the promise of something fresh and very, very good.
“Just because you’ve got a lot of people available doesn’t mean you can put anything in front of them and they’ll go,” said veteran marketing executive Terry Press.
“People have acted like Christmas is the promised land, and it can be, but the movies still have to deliver because audiences can always stay home and play with their new gadgets.”