It Wasn't Kids Who Catapulted 'Museum' Over 'Terminator'

Studios Boost Box Office by Marketing 'Family Films' to Adults, Too

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- "'Family' is no longer code for 'kids only,'" said Shawn Levy, director of the megahit "Night at the Museum" and its recent sequel, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian."

'Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian'
'Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian'
The charge toward family-friendly is due in large part to two hapless security guards. Larry Daley (Ben Stiller in the "Night at the Museum" movies) and Paul Blart (Kevin James in Sony's January surprise, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop") validated what many studio marketing and production executives had already begun to suspect.

Both movies had strong opening weekends, showing that the family film is becoming a genre that, executed properly, can attract kids, their parents and even childless adults. On Memorial Day weekend, 20th Century Fox's PG-rated "Night at the Museum" sequel defeated Warner Bros.' PG-13-rated "Terminator Salvation" at the box office, grossing $70 million. "Terminator" opened a full day earlier but still grossed $18 million less.

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As remarkable as how many people went to "Night at the Museum," however, is who went. Chris Aronson, senior VP-domestic distribution at 20th Century Fox, said the sequel drew an audience that was "52% non-family."

"We expected to be obliterated by 'Terminator Salvation,'" Mr. Levy said. "We had no right to hang with them."

Director does promos
Naturally, opening one of these new family films to an audience beyond the minivan set takes more than just buying ad inventory on "SpongeBob SquarePants." Mr. Levy took the unusual step of directing some of the "Night at the Museum" sequel's promotional TV spots, too.

NBC, eager to benefit from the shower of theatrical marketing dollars aimed at adults, had approached Fox about a co-promotional effort that would feature "Museum" actors such as Bill Hader, who plays General Custer (and is a regular on NBC's "Saturday Night Live"), and Hank Azaria, who plays Egyptian pharaoh Kahmunrah, blithely chatting about NBC shows such as "The Office" and "30 Rock" and air in between NBC's Thursday-night comedies.

Fox is not alone in going "family style." While the last two "Harry Potter" films were rated PG-13, when "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" hits theaters in July, the latest in the Warner franchise will be rated PG, not PG-13. The PG-for-profit precept is also in effect at Sony Pictures Entertainment's Columbia Pictures: It will soon begin shooting a remake of 1984's "The Karate Kid," with Will Smith's son Jaden, which is slated for next June. Sony is also readying "Smurfs," an expensive blend of live action and CGI similar in style to "Night at the Museum," for Christmas next year.
That felt a bit forced and out-of-character to Mr. Levy, so the offer was allowed to wither. But just three weeks before the movie opened, Mr. Levy was presented with tracking data that showed it was competitive with "Terminator." He decided an NBC promotion that connected the sequel with sophisticated adult audiences might be just the ticket.

"We wanted [to reach] 20- to 50-year-olds looking for comedy and not necessarily something to do with their kids," Mr. Levy said. "So I thought, 'What about [a skit with] Ben trying to get on the NBC lot?' I mean, if you're watching '30 Rock' or 'The Office,' you're an adult, not a dolt."

"I knew the quickest way to guarantee the quality of the pieces was to oversee the writing," Mr. Levy added, "so I personally directed the NBC interstitials with Jonah Hill [who plays another security guard] and Ben Stiller."

In the promos, Mr. Stiller and Mr. Hill are heading to a show-biz-related meeting on the NBC lot. But instead of the portly newcomer Mr. Hill being stopped at the gate, the far-better-known Mr. Stiller is denied access by -- wait for it -- an overzealous security guard.

Another PG powerhouse
The "Night at the Museum" sequel has grossed some $278 million since it opened on May 22. It was dislodged from the top box-office spot a week after it opened by another PG-rated film, Disney and Pixar's "Up," which is only the second PG-rated film for Pixar Animation Studios; eight of its 10 previous films were rated G.

"If you look at what's going on in the marketplace, you see two PG films at the top of the heap last weekend. Everything else is PG-13. That speaks volumes," said Mr. Aronson, adding, "There's a real need and demand for accessible entertainment, and there's been a bit of dearth of that."

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