The Shawn Levy streak ends. But what did it all mean?
As readers with an interest in the business side of Hollywood know, Levy has owned one of commercial filmmaking's more impressive streaks. Coming into this weekend, the "Date Night" director had seen his last five films win the top spot at the weekend box office, a streak that dates back to 2003 and includes one of the more potent comedy franchises around, "Night at the Museum."
The streak was cited enviously by filmmakers not named Shawn Levy and touted proudly by executives at companies that released his films (for the last few pictures, that's been Fox, where Levy and his production company have a deal). The streak, critics and supporters agreed, suggested that Levy was attuned to the American zeitgeist in a way that few directors were. In a profile last week, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed that the run was enough to provide Levy "grounds for sainthood" in Hollywood.
The streak appeared to continue this weekend, when Fox estimated that "Date Night" would earn $27.1 million, good enough for No. 1 over the holdover "Clash of the Titans," which grossed $26.9 million. Levy, it appeared, now had six straight No. 1s.
But several rival studios privately doubted Fox's number. And today it turns out they were right. According to The Times' box office guru Ben Fritz, Fox cut themselves a rather generous break in its estimates. "Date Night" in fact grossed $25.2 million -- still solid for a mid-budget comedy, but a number that's nearly $2 million lower than the original estimates, which usually miss by a few hundred thousand dollars at the most.
Needless to say, the final "Date Night" total was not good enough for No.1, a fact that provides grist for rival studio executives to ask whether Fox had been so generous because it wanted to allow Levy's streak to live on, if only for one more (press-heavy) day.
But as the streak ends, it's also fair to ask what it meant in the first place.
It bears pointing out, first off, that the streak applied only to films that Levy directed, not produced. That latter group includes its share of clunkers ("Cheaper by the Dozen 2" and "The Rocker" did not set the world afire).
But more important, it's worth noting that even among the five No. 1s for which Levy sat behind the camera, several came in at at the more modest end of the revenue spectrum. "Just Married" and "The Pink Panther," for instance, earned $17.5 and $20.2 million in their opening weekends, respectively, hardly world-beating numbers. These films won their box office as much by dint of the quiet time in which they came out -- January and February, when they faced almost no major competition -- as by bowling over the movie-going populace. ("Pink Panther took out movies such as "Final Destination 3" and "Firewall"; "Just Married" toppled the cinematic powerhouse that was "Two Weeks Notice.")
The streak, then, may be less a function of Levy having his thumb on the cultural pulse as it is the fact that he lands assignments for movies that are primed, through the complex calculation of studio release dates, to find the right spots on the calendar (like "Date Night," which opened against no other new wide releases). Those movies then earn respectable amounts that, oh yes, just happen to win the weekend box office.
It will be telling to see how Levy's next movie, a non-comedy, bigger-budgeted action thriller called "Real Steel," performs. That's one that could get slotted into a busier weekend and face stiffer competition (and also probably won't be satisfied with the twentysomething million of a mid-budget comedy).
Levy's "Night at the Museum" is a genuine phenomenon, a high-concept comedy that has become a global powerhouse. As for its director, his larger cultural clout may be, like a certain set of Fox estimates, a tad embellished.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Shawn Levy, Tina Fey and Steve Carell. Credit: Jens Kalaene / EPA. "The Pink Panther" poster. Credit: Sony