Sometimes bad dates happen to good movies.
Although studios often argue that the movie business is a 52-week-a-year business, Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man,” which Universal Pictures bowed June 3, appears to have launched at the wrong time. That is one of the factors that has left the film down for the count despite largely positive reviews.
On its opening weekend, the period boxing drama, starring Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger, landed in fourth place, with a disappointing $18.3 million (the studio had hoped to exceed $20 million). Last weekend, it tumbled nearly 47 percent, grossing $9.7 million to bring its 10-day haul to $35 million. The film cost $88 million to make.
In the wake of Crowe’s telephone-throwing incident in New York on June 6, the tabloids tried to pin the movie’s drop-off on his bad-boy behavior, but industry insiders see more substantive factors at play.
In releasing an adult-themed film about a beleaguered Depression-era boxer amid the first wave of summer popcorn movies, Universal took a calculated risk, which doesn’t appear to be paying off.
Universal and industry sources are citing the “Cinderella’s” June 3 release date as the primary factor for the film’s less-than-desirable returns.
Although studios on occasion have successfully launched adult-themed movies in the summer, they usually arrive later in the season, once audiences have had their fill of the lighter fare. In 2002, for example, DreamWorks Pictures launched its “Road to Perdition” on July 12, and in 2003, Universal opened “Seabiscuit” on July 25, and both movies went on to cross the $100 million mark.
“No question that later in the summer, it feels collectively easier to make the choice for the alternative after you have wave after wave of tentpoles pounding at you,” Universal Pictures vice chairman Marc Shmuger said. “This early, people weren’t ready to move off the diet that the usual studio product is providing.”
Glitz overshadows grit
In its second weekend, the gritty “Cinderella” was easily overshadowed by the $50 million bow of 20th Century Fox’s escapist action comedy “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” boosted by the star power of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Universal had hoped that the movie’s pedigree would save the day: It reunites producer Brian Grazer with Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (who shares screenplay credit with Cliff Hollingsworth.) The trio worked together on the Oscar-winning “A Beautiful Mind.” And though their film encountered critical resistance at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, it was greeted with largely positive reviews elsewhere.
“We had the best intentions going in,” Universal Pictures president of distribution Nikki Rocco said. “If you build it, they will come. We knew we had a good movie, and we thought if we put it out in this corridor, the audience would be there. I think we definitely overreached there.”
In retrospect, it also appears that the film’s marketing campaign, heralding Crowe in the role of real-life, Irish-born boxer Jim Braddock looked too familiar. The film’s ads carried the tagline: “When the country was on its knees, he brought America to its feet,” which was a veritable echo of that for “Seabiscuit,” which read, “The hopes of a nation rode on a long shot.” As a result, some journalists began referring to “Cinderella” as “Fistbiscuit.”
“Cinderella” also might have followed too close on the heels of Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Million Dollar Baby.” Clint Eastwood’s pugilist film, starring Hilary Swank, earned four Oscars in February. And though it originally opened in limited release in late 2004, it hung on through May in some theaters. For adult audiences, especially women who warmed to “Baby” but might have been put off by “Cinderella’s” violent hand-to-hand combat, Howard’s film could be viewed as one boxing movie too many.
Rocco said that “Baby’s” success was not a factor in determining “Cinderella’s” release date. “There was boxing in common, but these two movies have different audiences, different emotions,” she said. “We were going for the over-35 crowd, the ‘Seabiscuit’ audience. Wasn’t ‘Million Dollar Baby’ after a younger audience?”
Possible fall rereleaseThis is not the first time Howard has been burned by releasing a film with a similar theme too close to another movie. The director’s “EdTV,” starring Matthew McConaughey, grossed $22 million domestically when Universal released it in March 1999, nine months after Paramount Pictures enjoyed greater success opening the similarly themed “The Truman Show” in June 1998 to a domestic gross of $126 million.
A source close to Imagine Entertainment, Grazer and Howard’s production company, said the producers argued vehemently against the early summer date.
Originally, “Cinderella” had been penciled in for a Dec. 17, 2004, opening, but that date was abandoned when Crowe incurred a shoulder injury that delayed production. Next, Universal pushed the release date to March 18, but later chose to move it into the early summer.
Imagine didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
Said Rocco: “We don’t pick a release date and throw it to the producers and directors. We knew we were taking a risk, but we involved the filmmakers every step of the way. As a studio we are ultimately responsible for picking the date, but everybody knew the risk of going in the early summer.”
Universal executives are not throwing in the towel on the film yet. The studio is rejiggering the marketing campaign and is hoping to rerelease the film in late fall to generate Oscar buzz. But while “Cinderella” could mount something of a comeback by year’s end, it’s not likely to come in the domestic theatrical ring.