Why did Memorial Day turn into doomsday for the movie business?
I hate to see movies flop, even bad movies, like "Sex and the City 2" and "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," which both had deservedly awful openings over the Memorial Day weekend. But the one saving grace about Hollywood flops is hearing studio executives dream up excuses for why the movies didn't open, excuses that are often far more imaginative than the filmmaking on display in the pictures.
Things were so bad that, according to Ben Fritz, our in-house box office guru at The Times, if you account for ticket price inflation, the number of tickets sold during the holiday weekend (about 23.4 million according to Hollywood.com) was the lowest total in 17 years. That's bad. Really bad.
The excuses were much better, almost as good as the time in 2001 when MGM blamed an anthrax scare for the horrendous mid-October opening for "Bandits," a Bruce Willis-starring comic thriller that cost $80 million but did only $13.1 million of business in its debut weekend. After talking to a number of inside players, Fritz wrote the following:
"Movie studio distribution executives pointed to several factors that may have depressed this weekend's box office: the NBA and NHL playoffs that this year feature teams from major cities -- Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia -- and the Indianapolis 500 race. Another possible reason could be the improving economy, as more people have been going on vacation this year compared with last year."
Ben has to play it straight, because he's reporting the news, but I can editorialize, so let me just offer a one-word reaction to that litany of excuses: lame! When you start blaming your bad box office on hockey, you know you're in trouble. Ditto for the Indianapolis 500, which has hardly kept people away from the multiplexes in years past. And correct me if I'm wrong, but two of the four cities involved in NBA conference championship games over the weekend were Orlando and Phoenix, hardly what you'd call major moviegoing markets.
By the way, Disney (which owns ABC and ESPN, who broadcast many of the NBA playoff games) pulled off one of the most shameless movie plugs in recent history, when ESPN's otherwise super professional sideline reporter Doris Burke was forced, "hopefully under duress," as my colleague Mark Heisler put it over the weekend, to interview Jake Gyllenhaal during Game 3 of the Celtics-Magic series. Since the willowy Gyllenhaal is clearly not a major basketball fan, it was pretty obvious that he got all the free airtime to plug Disney's "Prince of Persia," which he called "a huge, big, epic, action, comedic, romantic movie." That piece of puffery came right after Gyllenhaal admitted that he was, ahem, rooting for both the Celtics and the Lakers, something you could say only if you were a conniving politician or an actor desperate to get everyone out to see your film.
As for the excuse about more people taking vacations this year because of the improving economy -- an excuse I heard myself from a number of industry insiders -- that seems to be an even bigger stretch, since as far as I can remember, people are always taking vacations on Memorial Day, whether it's just driving up the coast or heading to Palm Springs.
Things were so bad that Warners distribution chief Dan Fellman, usually something of a straight shooter, found himself ("hopefully under duress") bragging to the Hollywood Reporter that "Sex and the City 2's" $31-million three-day opening was "the biggest R-rated Memorial Day opener ever." That sounds pretty impressive until you do the math and discover that the movie that had previously held the record -- "Beverly Hills Cop 2" -- was released 23 years ago.
In other words, you have to go way, way back to find any evidence of a major R-rated studio film being released on Memorial Day. According to Hollywood.com, the last R-rated film to even open at No. 1 on Memorial Day was "Cliffhanger," released in 1993, the year that was the previous record holder for worst overall Memorial Day box office.
So what does this tell us? First, if you're looking for something to blame for the bad weekend, start with the movies themselves. They were stinkers, and everyone figured it out pretty darn quickly. But moviegoers also have figured out that ticket prices are higher than ever, and they're beginning to get a nasty case of sticker shock. They won't avoid the really good movies, such as Chris Nolan's upcoming "Inception." And they probably won't avoid a slam-dunk family favorite such as Pixar's upcoming "Toy Story 3."
But the movies that don't have a strong marketing hook or a must-see vibe are going to find themselves in trouble, because once moviegoers start being wary about the summer offerings, they have plenty of other diverting options that can turn into major distractions. Going to the movies is a summer habit, but once word gets out that the local multiplex is full of turkeys, it's a habit that many people can easily break.
Photo: Jake Gyllenhaal in the movie "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." Credit: Andrew Cooper / Disney Enterprises and Jerry Bruckheimer Inc.