This is the third time the studio turned criticism of a high profile movie into awareness – and box office. But who's counting?
“Noah” withstood a tsunami of bad buzz to score a $44 million debut last weekend and capture the top spot at the box office.
The opening won't be one for the record books, and with a reported production budget of $125 million, the picture must navigate more rough weather on its journey to profitability, but it's the latest example of Paramount Pictures taking a pricey high-profile movie that could have capsized under the weight of punishing headlines and launching it successfully.
In the case of “Noah,” Paramount remained sensitive to the concerns of religious leaders, while selling the film with the kind of lavish special effects that appealed to secular crowds.
Paramount pulled off a similar feat with Brad Pitt‘s “World War Z” last summer, and again with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio‘s “The Wolf of Wall Street” last Christmas, both of which were plagued with stories about last-minute reshoots and marathon edits.
Those films not only averted disaster but went on to box office success. The $190 million “World War Z” was pilloried for budget overruns and for jettisoning its original ending, but opened to a better-than-expected $66 million in June and went on to make $540 million worldwide. It will spawn a sequel.
The $100 million “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which was produced by Red Granite and distributed by Paramount, drew fire for its explicit scenes of drug use and sexual debauchery. But instead of shying away from the controversy, Paramount embraced it as a tool to drive awareness. That film's box office is now up to $390 million worldwide, no small feat for an R-rated movie centered on a financial fraudster.
Megan Colligan, Paramount's president of domestic marketing and distribution, told TheWrap that “Noah” was uncharted territory. ”Darren delivered a movie that was complicated, a little bit arthouse, an action movie and spiritual all at the same time,” she said. ”We couldn't sell it like '300' and we couldn't sell it like ‘Son of God,’ because it wasn't either of those – it was both.”
She added: “The key was to provide moviegoers with context, so that they would know what they were going to see.”
Going into last weekend, the story of “Noah” – the movie – was of a studio at war with director Darren Aronofsky, best known for “Black Swan,” and under siege from Christian groups over deviations from the Bible, while a wildly expensive production hung in the balance.
“Had Darren made some choices that would have made the movie more orthodox, I think it would have gotten more support from the Christian community, but it's still a terrific opening,” Phil Cooke, a media consultant who spoke with Paramount during its outreach to Christian leaders, said.
Fidelity aside, Aronofsky's take on the Old Testament tale debuted domestically with roughly $10 million more than what analysts had projected it would amass. It will cross the $100 million mark worldwide in two weeks.
From “World War Z” to “Noah,” the negativity came out before the film did. But there's more to it than that. A willingness on the part of the production team to be open to change helps. Brad Grey, chairman and chief executive at Paramount Pictures, green-lighted “Noah” and was willing to do whatever it took to put the best film out there.
Pitt's zombie thriller “World War Z” went through several endings, at no small cost, before it found the right one. And “Noah” was extensively test-screened and tweaked before Aronofsky and Paramount settled on the final cut.
Aronofsky spent weeks creating exploratory versions of the film, with a particular line of dialogue or an extended scene, and getting feedback from test audiences.
“They did a very good job of getting religious leaders connected so they could start talking about it early on,” Cooke said. “However, they might have emphasized the perspective that Darren was taking on the story of Noah more. He comes from a secular Jewish background and he's an atheist, so it makes sense that he was going to go to ancient Jewish sources that Christians don't know much about.”
Adding a disclaimer was a key part of Paramount's campaign to the church-going crowd. Even if the message Paramount added to the film – that it was a creative adaptation of the Old Testament tale and not a literal one – didn't change many minds among the faith-based crowds, the media reports on it sent a message to the mainstream that this was more than a religious movie.
“We wanted people to know that they weren't just going to Sunday school,” said Colligan, “But we discovered in our research that even if people didn't identify themselves as religious, they wanted a movie about Noah to be entertaining first of all, but it was also important to them that it be true to the themes of Scripture, and it was.”
Chris Aronson, head of distribution at rival studio Fox, tipped his hat.
“They positioned it both as faith-based film and an event movie and connected on both,” he said. Fox will be looking to do the same in December with Ridley Scott's “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which stars Aaron Paul and Christian Bale. Even fan boys got the message and flocked to Imax theaters, which delivered 14 percent of the grosses.
“Noah” is as much an effects-laden disaster film as it is Biblical saga, but it has a brain and the critics have noticed. It's at 76 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes, the same range that “World War Z” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” are in. Once those hit theaters, much of the criticism of the first two films faded, or at least became more informed and measured.
“Paramount did a good job of making it look like an epic action adventure,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at Rentrak, told TheWrap. “Secular crowds love Russell Crowe with a ‘Gladiator’ beard, and the studio knew that in order to entertain an audience, they needed to take poetic license. They found a balance between being faithful and staying entertaining.”