Bad Box Office? Blame 'Halo'
The joystick has brought Ben Stiller nothing but sorrow.
Industry expectations for "The Heartbreak Kid," the date movie that re-teamed him with the Farrelly brothers (the duo who made him a megastar in "There's Something About Mary"), called for a $20 million to $25 million opening for the film. Instead, "Kid," which cost north of $60 million to make, managed only $14 million in the U.S. and Canada -- heartbreaking, indeed.
But there's more. Total industry ticket sales were only $80 million for the Oct. 5 weekend the film opened, a whopping 27% below the same weekend the year before, according to research firm Media by Numbers. That's the industry's worst performance for an October weekend since 1999. Overall, domestic receipts are down 6% from last fall.
Blame the Master Chief.
Glued to joysticks
Many film executives are convinced audiences stayed home to play Microsoft's carpal-tunnel classic, "Halo 3," which went on sale on Sept. 26. The game sold an astonishing $170 million worth of copies on its first day, before going on to sell well over $300 million.
It doesn't appear the Chief stayed in shrink-wrap for long, either: More than 2.7 million gamers have played "Halo 3" on Xbox Live -- Microsoft's multiplayer gaming offering -- in the first week, representing more than one-third of the 7 million Xbox Live members worldwide. Within the first day of its launch, "Halo 3" players racked up more than 3.6 million hours of game play, and that number increased to 40 million hours by the end of the first week. For those keeping score, that's more than 4,500 years of continuous game play.
For Microsoft, it's no wonder video games, and in particular "Halo 3," are competing with blockbusters for opening weekends. "We marketed it like a film," said Josh Goldberg, a "Halo 3" product manager at Microsoft, adding, "and now, we're just as big or bigger than film." He said "Halo 3" was marketed as an event film in terms of its partnerships, with beverage, automotive, fast feeders and mobile-phone companies all joining up.
"The audience on this game is the 18-to-34 demographic, similar to what you'd see in cinemas," said Mike Hickey, an analyst at Janco Partners, a Denver research firm, adding that "this could last for several weeks."
Next wave And there's more where that came from. Take 2 Interactive's Rockstar Games is readying its release of "Grand Theft Auto 4." The latest edition of the hugely popular franchise is tentatively slated to hit shelves in March or early April of next year and could potentially steal box office. Mr. Hickey said it "could conceivably ship 9.5 million units" in its first week, translating to first-week sales of more than $400 million.
Not all of Hollywood is convinced. Mediocre reviews on "Kid" piled up from critics, and at rival studio Screen Gems, owned by Sony, marketing chief Mark Weinstock says that "box office is driven by content."
Mr. Weinstock, who just opened video-game adaptation "Resident Evil: Extinction" in September, notes that clearly "some young males decided to play video games" on the "Kid" opening weekend, but noted that the R-rating of "Kid" and lukewarm reviews could have hurt the film just as much as "Halo 3."
Correlation vs. causation
A spokesman for Paramount, which owns Dreamworks, the studio that released the Ben Stiller movie, declined to discuss whether "Halo" had caused the "Kid" boondoggle. But privately, insiders at the studio suspect the blame might lie in part with "Halo 3," and are working to determine if there was a correlation.
That's because, in a twist of fate, Mr. Stiller is producing an adaptation of the bestselling book "The Ruins," which Paramount will open the first weekend of April 2008 -- right in the middle of "Grand Theft Auto 4's" expected release.
Mr. Hickey said that doesn't bode well: "This past weekend will replicate itself next year."
Or worse. He said one could roughly complete "Halo 3" in roughly 20 hours played straight through, but by comparison "Grand Theft Auto 4" is estimated to take more than 100 hours to play. That means it could keep players occupied and out of the theaters even longer.