The Hulk scared up an audience dropout of 70 percent between
its opening and second weekends.

A feeding frenzy.” “a behemoth swinging its weight
around.” “completely irrational.” each of these phrases has been
used by respected members of the film community (Steven Soderbergh,
Lory Smith and John Anderson, respectively, to be exact) to describe
that orgy of film and fraternization otherwise know as the Sundance
Film Festival. In recent years, many who preferred the liberated,
art-centric, bohemian air that festivals once symbolized have taken
to labeling Sundance a mere marketing arm of the studios and mini-majors.

Over-anticipated and self-indulgent Sundance may be, but with
good reason: while studio blockbusters are busting after opening
weekend, Sundance winners are wowing wider audiences with each
passing day. Why? Audiences believe that Sundance films are better.

Summer 2003 boasted a behemoth line-up of big-name action flicks. The
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Charlie’s
Angels: Full Throttle
were three of the studio system’s heftiest
(and most costly) ventures. At an average budget of roughly $150
million each, these overblown offerings grossed their way into
2003’s top 10, but did little to invigorate viewers. The proof
is in the numbers.

The Hulk opened with a record weekend,
but played a >deflated
second week with losses of over $44 million. One of the summer’s
most massive disappointments, in just seven days, The Hulk’s audience
dropped 70 percent.

Terminator 3 showed a similar lack of
staying power, plummeting $25 million in sales between the first
and second weekends—an audience
fall-off of 56 percent.

The hyper-hyped Charlie’s Angels sequel lacked longevity,
too, forfeiting 63 percent of its viewers in a cascading loss of
$24 million in sales the weekend after its opening.

These huge second weekend droughts are not
unique to the fatuous flicks of 2003, but are evidence of a growing
Hollywood trend. “Today,
if you drop only 50 percent your second weekend, that’s considered
pretty good,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations
Company, a firm that tracks box office stats. “We always think
it can’t get any worse, but now it’s not unusual to see some 70
percent—even 80 percent—drops.”

Why are studio blockbusters becoming one-weekend wonders? Why
did summer movies stick around a decade ago, taking only 54 percent
of their total grosses in the first three weeks, while last year’s
top 10 devoured 75 percent of their audiences right off the bat?

For one, the average wide-release studio movie
plays on 3,200 screens, compared to a mere 1,200 screens in 1993.
This means many more moviegoers can see a blockbuster opening
weekend—and they
do, thanks to the typical $75 million marketing campaigns waged
for most worldwide releases.

Still, not everyone sees big-name films on opening weekend. So
why the drastic drop in numbers? And why, contrary to studio executives’
hopes, aren’t theatergoers going back for seconds? Why do these
mammoth movies sizzle… then fizzle?

“Big marketing blitzes can buy you an opening-week audience,” offers
Dergarabedian, “but ‘bought’ is all it is. For any kind of staying
power, you need word of mouth… [Negative] word of mouth is killing

Word of mouth may be killing Hollywood, but it’s a problem the
better films (read: Sundance winners) don’t have.

Thomas McCarthy’s The Station Agent, the 2003 Sundance
Audience Award winner, had a modest domestic gross its first weekend
(nothing compared to its multimillion dollar studio contemporaries).
But unlike many studio films, The Station Agent didn’t bomb
the following weekend. In fact, it pleased its audience so much
that it actually started to gain viewers. In three weeks,
this Sundance winner’s sales swelled a whopping 400 percent!

Sundance favorites American
, starring
Hope Davis and Paul Giamatti, and The Station Agent, with Peter
Dinklage, proved they had staying power.

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s Sundance Grand Jury
Prize winner, American Splendor, also enjoyed the word of
mouth that trails in the wake of pleasing product. In two weeks,
its sales exploded 185 percent. By its fifth weekend, it was showing
on 45 times as many screens as it did when it opened.

Together, the domestic grosses of these two Sundance films was
almost nine times their combined budgets, while the grosses of The
and Terminator 3 were a negative four percent of
their costs.

At a time when audiences are more curious,
have more “alternative” choices
and are more insulted by Hollywood’s hollow handiwork, theatergoers
seem to prefer more substantial cinema.

“Clearly, the audience is not liking [the blockbusters],” Newsweek movie
critic David Ansen proclaimed to The Washington Post. “[Through
word of mouth] viewers are creating larger audiences for the stuff
they like, and killing off audiences for the stuff they don’t,” adds
Anthony Kusich, a Reel Source, Inc. box office analyst.

As swollen and contrived as Sundance and its fellow festivals
may be, the numbers prove that their moviemakers are at least conscious
of what the studios have forgotten: make good movies and, above
all else, please the audience.

“I get the impression that the movers and shakers of Hollywood
think they control the public,” renowned critic Leonard Maltin
surmised to The Washington Post, “but they can’t. The audience
has the final say. They always have and they always will.” MM

*Box office numbers from and