Why ‘Star Trek’ fans have to stop worrying about the box office

04.21.09 8 years ago 7 Comments

Paramount Pictures

In anticipation of conducting some “Star Trek” editorial later this week, I scoured a number of Trek fan sites over the weekend to see what the current take from the hardcore contingent was on J.J. Abrams reboot.  What I found was troubling.  As you’d expect, a bunch of fans were voicing their displeasure that “The Next Generation” crew weren’t getting their due in the relaunch.  Other fans were horrified over some of the changes to the Enterprise’s iconic design. Much more disconcerting, however, were Trek fans obsessing over the box office performance in comparison to another May release, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”  A debate so fierce it seemed that many of those posting were so emotionally invested that if the movie isn’t a massive blockbuster, they fear their beloved franchise will really be left for dead.

Relax Trekkers, Trekies and Tribble lovers, “Star Trek” has already been resurrected and isn’t going anywhere.

The drama began on Friday, when industry publication Ad Age published an article based on data from studio tracking service Marketcast.  The survey company released findings to studios predicting “Wolverine” is on its way to a massive $80-100 million opening the weekend of May 1.  That’s not surprising as most surveys are showing massive interest in a film that’s smartly been sold as an “X-Men” sequel.  “Star Trek,” in comparison, is tracking for an opening at about half that level.  The report also noted that Paramount Pictures, the longtime shepherd of the Trek franchise, was having problems enticing younger women (i.e., women under 25) to consider the property.  At the time of these surveys, “Wolverine” had a 38% definite interest among that category and “Star Trek” only had 18%.  Additionally, I can also report that competing survey services have been very, very positive with surprisingly low definitely not interested scores for “Trek” (more on that later).

Now, for anyone expecting an industry-setting record opening for “Trek,” this would be cause for concern.  However, that’s hardly the case here, we’re talking “Star Trek.”  As someone who had the pleasure and pain of working on the marketing campaigns for both “Star Trek: Insurrection” (so bad it makes “Final Frontier” look epic) and “Star Trek Nemesis” (a good concept scuttled by cheesy screenwriting and cheap sets), these numbers are a cause for celebration.  A $50-60 million opening for “Star Trek”?  Seriously?  Scream to the heavens!  Does anyone remember the results for those last two flicks that pretty much killed the franchise?  Let’s quickly review the last ten years of “Trek” movies:

“Star Trek: Insurrection”
Opening weekend: $22 million
Domestic Gross: $70 million
International Gross: $42 million
Lowdown: Barely in the black, a disappointment.

“Star Trek: Nemesis”
Opening Weekend: $18 million
Domestic Gross: $43 million
International Gross: $24 million
Lowdown: Horrible release date and lack of interested created a huge bomb, but got Rick Berman excised as overseer of all “Trek.”

If this new “Star Trek” opens to $50 million (which is still on the low end in my opinion) and tops out at $150 million plus domestically that is a huge success.  A $150 million grossing “Star Trek” picture?  Is it that hard to believe?  Perhaps you should take these points into account:

Paramount will be more than happy with millions of young male ticket buyers.
Remember that “definite not interested” category among the ladies that was discussed earlier ?  The “Star Trek” franchise had become such a polarizing entity that by the time “Nemesis” rolled around, the definite not interested scores were just as high as those interested in seeing the picture.  That’s almost unheard of in movie tracking and pretty much impossible to derive a hit from.  More importantly, young men are the most reliable audience to secure a big opening and unlike previous pictures’ audiences who skewed much older, they are certainly intrigued in this reboot.  That’s a massive win this far out.

A more than impressive marketing campaign.
Do you know how hard it is to make something that’s not inherently cool, cool as a marketer?  If you get a chance, go back and look at the final trailer for “Nemesis.”  It’s 10 times better than the movie itself.  Perhaps the poster wasn’t as slick as it could have been, but I know the website (cough, Hollywood Key Art Nominee 2003) made the picture look like a true Sci-Fi flick (which it wasn’t).  So, taking into account the stigma the franchise has faced from the mainstream media and moviegoers,  a few departments at the Melrose studio deserve pats on their back for the work they’ve accomplished so far.  Those trailers and TV spots?  Absolutely superb.  The daring avant-garde poster and outdoor?  Risky, but cleverly out of the box (although the 60’s era logo is still a mistake).  And how about that publicity campaign?  Somehow, the studio has convinced media outlets across the world that Chris Pine is a real star and, oh yeah, he’s never opened a movie.  A photo shoot in Vanity Fair and the cover of Men’s Health?  Sure the magazine business is dying and desperate, but put “Star Trek” in the same sentence as those two publications. Do it again. Out loud. No, hell hasn’t frozen over, it’s just a publicity team pulling miracles out of their, um, hats.

The power of promotional partners.
It’s hard enough nowadays to get any major company to jump on board a movie promotion unless it’s a proven brand like “Shrek,” “Toy Story” or “Spider-Man.” For “Star Trek: Nemesis” there was one significant promotional partner: Del Taco. And it wasn’t even a national campaign, mostly TV spots in the Southwest and Southern California (I can’t make this up. It was really that pathetic.)  This reboot? TV spots on the hour from blue chip brands such as Nokia/Verizon, Esurance, Kellogs, Intel and Burger King.  (Somewhere, a former VP of Promotions has her mouth to the floor at what has been achieved with all of this).  What does this mean exactly? Millions and millions of free impressions to hawk a new “Trek” across the media landscape.  And a little discussed fact, you help legitimize your own product by putting it next to other proven products (good thing AIG didn’t come on board).

So, here’s the deal worried “Trek” fans: stop being so insecure.  Your movie is going to open. 

As noted, tracking is pretty impressive for a “Star Trek” movie this far out. Plus, “Wolverine” is so massive, its no doubt skewing the tracking results for the films following it such as “Trek” (a phenomenon that consistently happens during summer movie season). That doesn’t mean “Trek” will match the hoped for gargantuan and unrealistic $80-90 million opening, but it does mean everything is probably skewed just a tad lower than it will actually end up being. There also happens to be this thing called “word-of-mouth.”  Studios often insist reviews don’t open or kill a picture’s box office chances, but they can certainly influence it.  And if reports such as this one continue to come in, it might convince even the skeptics who disliked the franchise for the past few decades to give it a try.

On the other hand, “Star Trek” does have one formidable problem that cannot be ignored: International box office.  Historically, “Trek” has only been successful in only the U.K., Australia and Germany.  The rest of the world could care less about the movies or the TV shows.  And while the film’s budget is being reported at $125 million, something the entire town knows is ludicrous, the picture will need a healthy dose of overseas box office to be exceedingly profitable.  However, it appears studio head Brad Grey and his lieutenants have a much longer view for rebuilding the beleaguered franchise and may settle for just domestic success this time around.  Ironically, you can look at “Wolverine” and the “X-Men” franchise as their potential inspiration. 

The first “X-Men” featured an ensemble cast of modestly successful actors including an unknown leading man (Hugh Jackman) with skeptics believing it was a box office folly.  Sound familiar?  In between the first and second film, one of the stars completely broke out (Halle Berry, Oscar-winner and Bond girl) and the leading man became even more popular.  And all those supporting players? They grew in relative popularity too.  By the time the third movie rolled around, it didn’t even matter who directed it, the audience was sold.  Today, the “X-Men” brand is so strong and Hugh Jackman is so beloved as the character that “Wolverine” will escape an online leak to become one of the biggest films of the summer.  No surprise then,  Paramount has already ordered a script for a new “Star Trek” adventure with hopes of releasing the film in 2011.  International results be damned, Chris Pine is our man.

So, distraught “Trek” fans, don’t freak out about coming in behind to “Wolverine,” “Angels & Demons” or “Terminator: Salvation.”  Instead, take the long view and enjoy J.J. Abrams’ ride.  Better yet, why not take bets on who will be the “Trek” breakout star before the crew of the starship Enterprise returns for a second go around?  Chris Pine’s ascension aside, is it Anton Yelchin, Zoe Saldana, John Cho or Zachary Quinto? Now, that’s something really worth debating.

Follow Gregory Ellwood’s musings and all things HitFix on twitter.com/hitfixgregory.

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