Do movies still have time to succeed?

Robert Evans, the infamous former head of Paramount who wrote the classic Hollywood memoir “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” used to say the first weekend for a film was like a parachute. 

If it doesn’t open, you’re pretty much dead.

With so much speculation about the fate of Super 8, and with so much of the film being hidden until right before its release date, one wonders if word of mouth would be able to travel fast enough to keep it going at the box office if the first weekend didn’t deliver.

Hollywood tries to treat research and tracking like gospel or science; perhaps most likely to convince itself the studios actually have control over something. But the truth is movies are an enormous crap shoot. 

As much as the studio executives (and the corporations that own the studios), don’t want to hear it, all the hype and good reviews can’t bring audiences to theaters if they don’t want to go (like with Almost Famous, which sadly couldn’t find an audience with stellar notices and word of mouth), nor will horrible reviews keep audiences away who want to see a film (like Transformers or the Star Wars prequels).

You used to hear more cases of movies going up at the box office instead of having their biggest weekend first, then plummeting from there.

For example, Polar Express didn’t do well at first, but managed to hang in there during its initial release and do well over a longer period of time. Same with Across the Universe, the Beatles musical that also didn’t open well, but then grew with strong word of mouth.

Reading the notorious ’70’s Hollywood tell-all Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a friend of mine was brokenhearted by the story of American Hot Wax, a cult favorite from 1978 that was left for dead on opening night by the studio.

Producer Art Linson was in the lobby of the National Theater in Westwood opening night, when Jeffrey Katzenberg told him, “It’s over.” Linson said, “God, it’s Friday night at six o’clock, maybe it’ll build, it’s a good movie, let’s advertise tomorrow, how do you know this?” 

Katzenberg responded, “We got the numbers back from New York. It’s over.”

Still, as Nikki Rocco, President of Distribution at Universal, said, “You never know when you’re going to have legs. Every year there’s the sleeper hits. You definitely know by Saturday morning what level of business the movie’s going to do in three days. What you don’t know is just how the audiences embrace it.

“Did we know The 40 Year Virgin was going to gross over $100 million dollars? No. We had a very successful opening weekend and we were thrilled with the results, but we had no idea it would reach that level. There’s just so much you can estimate and prognosticate about. It then has to be left in the hands of the moviegoers whether it’s going to be successful or not.”