Will 'Hugo' lose the sprint but win the marathon?
A substantial amount of time spent this holiday weekend with preschoolers shed some light on Family Bowl -- a.k.a. the battle among "Arthur Christmas," "The Muppets" and "Hugo" over Thanksgiving (won, of course, by the Hensonites).
To wit: "The Muppets" played very well among the fingerpainting set -- one 5-year-old who may or may not be related to this blogger enthusiastically summarized the story as being about "how Frog is trying to get back the office." A few of the parents informally surveyed were a little less effusive, which makes the new muppets film an inversion of the original movies and television series, which appealed more heavily to the grown-up set.
But an even more curious case comes with "Hugo," the expensive 3-D family film set in period Paris and from the unlikely domain of Martin Scorsese. (At the premiere last week, the "Goodfellas" auteur deadpanned that he'd like to issue "a warning" -- namely, that "this is a family film.")
Premiering in a comparatively modest 1,250 theaters, "Hugo" did decent but not overhwhelming business (just over $15 million). On its face the movie has its work cut out for it. In a crowded holiday season, it opened in just fifth place. And with more family product pouring in over the coming weeks, it won't get easier as the film goes into wider release Dec 9. For all its creative virtues, the movie is, in marketing terms, a bit of a tweener -- it could seem too arty for a family audience and too family-ish for an arty audience.
But there are also the early rustlings of a longer-running sleeper success, the kind of success that happens infrequently in Hollywood and even more rarely in the family film realm.
The average haul for "Hugo" came in roughly at the same level as "The Muppets," which played on nearly three times as many screens. Movies don't often hold the average as they widen, but the "Hugo" per-screen numbers certainly are a strong sign as the movie rolls out to more theaters.
When we talked to producer Graham King on the day of the "Hugo" premiere last week, he all but acknowledged the movie could struggle a little out of the gate. "We know it won't be a success overnight," he said. "But we believe it can really find an audience over time."
How easy is it for a family film to hang in?
Not terribly easy, but not necessarily as complicated as you'd think. While even megahits such as "Toy Story 3" tend to drop by 35% or 45% as the weeks wear on, these last few months, family films have shown surprising resilience. "The Lion King 3-D" and "A Dolphin Tale" hung in week after week, and earlier this month "Puss in Boots" pulled off the remarkable feat of dropping only negligibly from its first to second week.
The conventional wisdom has been that parents take their kids to a movie the weekend it opens -- when they first notice it and when children clamor loudest for it -- and then promptly move on. But parents are showing a bit more patience than that, and these benefits could flow to "Hugo."
The patience is a particular factor among visually striking films -- witness how "Avatar" dropped only in single digits as weeks wore on and people came out to live or relive the spectacle.
It's too soon to say whether "Hugo will achieve anything close to this level of success, or even be considered a hit. But after a weekend dominated by a family film featuring creatures with no legs, it's starting to look like "Hugo" could have plenty of its own.
Photo: A scene from "Hugo." Credit: Peter Kramer/Reuters