News

'Serenity' Moseys to Tame Start

by Brandon Gray
Nathan Fillion stars in Serenity
October 3, 2005

The box office reception for Serenity, riding a heap of hype and a devoted fan following, was decidedly calm. Flightplan boarded the top spot by default with $14.8 million, leading overall business to be down 22 percent compared to the analogous frame in 2004 when Shark Tale and Ladder 49 opened.

Aiming for big screen success from humble television origins, Serenity corralled a tame $10.1 million from 2,188 theaters, failing to buck modest industry expectations. Neither hit nor flop, initial attendance for writer-director Joss Whedon's $39 million space western was in the range of Red Planet and Titan A.E. and less than half that of The Fifth Element, which shared plot similarities. According to distributor Universal Pictures' exit polling, 52 percent of the audience was over 30 years old and 61 percent was male, while the top three reasons moviegoers cited for seeing the picture were the "story," the "action" and the "humor."

Universal's head of distribution, Nikki Rocco, was hopeful that positive word-of-mouth will broaden Serenity's audience beyond fans of Firefly, the 2002 series on which the movie is based. The picture scored an "A" grade from CinemaScore, which polls opening night moviegoers. Universal's research suggested 88 percent of the audience rated the picture "excellent" or "very good," which is solid but not exceptional.

"We are satisfied," Rocco said. "The opening is where we thought it would be. The fan base turned out. We're hoping more will turn out in the future. I think over $10 million is a lot of business for a niche appeal picture, and I think the ancillary [DVD, etc.] will be spectacular. I'd say over 40 percent [of moviegoers] were the fans. And there was probably another 30 percent that had not watched the show but had heard of it." Rocco highlighted San Francisco and Seattle among the cities that had strong turn outs, although she would not speculate on whether Serenity was successful enough to merit a sequel.

Serenity's existence is an achievement in its own right, regardless of the box office. Back in 2002, Firefly was one of the beleaguered Fox network's many casualties, ranking 66th in the Nielsen ratings for its first episode and quickly descending to around 100th place for the rest of its run. Out of 14 produced episodes, Fox aired 11, unceremoniously and out-of-order. The few people who saw the show took a shine to it, and creator Joss Whedon didn't give up.

Firefly's vocal and passionate support led to the movie deal with Universal and a DVD release of the show that reportedly sold half a million copies. "We actually like the director," said Rocco. "We were hoping to tap in to his fan base." The only other example of a movie springing from the ashes of a television series that lasted less than one season was the 1988 comedy hit, The Naked Gun, based on Police Squad!. Firefly's path has been an inversion of Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which began as a failed movie and became a successful TV series.

Universal isn't exactly the studio of note when it comes to space operas and similar genre pictures, with disappointments ranging from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century to The Chronicles of Riddick. Their "Can't Stop the Signal" promotional campaign to galvanize the show's fans with special screenings and more was a smart move, as was the re-airing of Firefly on Universal's corporate sibling, the Sci-Fi Channel. However, the advertising didn't appeal to anyone who wasn't already a Firefly fan, from rushed, context-free trailers and TV spots to an ugly, non-descript poster to a tagline—"The Future is Worth Fighting For"—that was vague and recalled The X-Files movie's "Fight the Future."

Viggo Mortensen stars in
A History of Violence
Among other new wide releases, A History of Violence grabbed $8.1 million in its expansion to 1,340 venues, bowing in the same league as Crash and The Constant Gardener. Bolstered by a taut trailer, the $32 million crime drama is playing to about 80 percent of what Mystic River did on its first two weekends in fall 2003.

The promise of scantily-clad and wet Jessica Alba and Paul Walker was not enough to propel Into the Blue. The action thriller, essentially a remake of The Deep that distributor Sony inherited with its takeover of MGM, drowned at 2,789 spots with $7.1 million. Sony's research suggested that moviegoers were 71 percent under 25 and 51 percent male.

Touted as being from the studio that brought you Remember the Titans, The Rookie and Miracle, The Greatest Game Ever Played putted $3.7 million at 1,014 locations, about as well as to be expected for a low-profile, period golfing picture. Distributor Buena Vista plans to expand to about 1,800 theaters on Oct. 7.

Oliver Twist was left with crumbs, scrounging $888,721 from 779 sites. The $60 million family drama offered no compelling reason for people to see this interpretation of the Charles Dickens novel after the many that preceded it.

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NOTE: This report was originally published on Sunday, Oct. 2 and was updated on Monday, Oct. 3 with actual grosses.



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