Making competitive college a cappella singing seem cool is a feat in itself. Now Universal will find out if its comedy musical “Pitch Perfect” can hit the box-office high notes.
A terrific limited release debut and a barrage of youth-driven buzz have Universal executives and industry analysts in harmony: Both are looking for beautiful box office music when the tuneful comedy opens nationwide this weekend.
It will be in 2.770 theaters this weekend and analysts see the film in the mid- to-high-teen millions. It's already looking like a financial winner for Universal, which developed and co-financed the movie with Paul Brooks’ Gold Circle Films for $17 million. Brooks produced along with Elizabeth Banks and Max Handelman via their Brownstone Productions.
Last weekend, "Pitch Perfect" took in $5.1 million from just 335 theaters between Friday and Sunday, giving it a $15,560 per-screen average, the best of any movie in release. Audiences — 74 percent female — gave it an "A" CinemaScore.
That's impressive, especially for a movie with subject matter — a college freshman reluctantly joins an all-girls vocal group and they take on a guys group — that would seem to have narrow appeal.
"Even Universal had to be surprised at those numbers," Exhibitor Relations senior analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap. "If the momentum keeps building, they'll have a hit on their hands."
Surprised or not, Universal's marketing team knows it is in uncharted territory. A limited bow before going wide is usually reserved for serious films seeking to build buzz via critical acclaim, along the lines of what the Weinstein Company did recently with "The Master." In this case, the studio was looking for popular buzz.
"It is non-traditional to try this with a comedy," Nikki Rocco, Universal's distribution chief, told TheWrap. She cited "A Beautiful Mind" and "Munich" as examples of earlier platformed releases, and noted that limited Oscar-qualifying runs are common. "But this is a non-traditional film."
The early rollout wasn't initially part of the plan. The studio launched a massive screening campaign in the summer, targeting youth camps of all ilk — cheerleading, performing arts, a cappella (yes, they exist) — and later college campuses across the country.
"When we got the response we did at the camps and colleges, and we started getting positive reviews, we decided to try to keep on building on that," Rocco said. The buzzing hasn't stopped. Between Friday, Sept. 28 and Monday, Oct. 1, there were more than 38,000 tweets about "Pitch Perfect," and they ran positive ("It's Aca-Awesome!") by an 11-to-1 ratio. But will the box office follow?
"We're hoping so," Rocco said, pointing out that while the limited bow was encouraging, it makes tracking the wide release trickier. One question is whether last week's opening will take a bite out of this weekend's returns or amplify them.
Universal is betting on the latter, and hoping the movie's "early adopters" — i.e. young girls — spread the word to such an extent that the base will broaden to older females, and maybe even males.
Social media heat doesn't always translate to box-office success. a driven small sample can create a "false positive" with relentless tweeting and such. But the analysts don't think that's the case with "Pitch Perfect."
“The fact that a lot of people want to see the movie but haven't been able to, that creates demand,” Phil Contrino, editor-in-chief at Boxoffice.com told TheWrap. “In some ways, it’s a better strategy than releasing wide and crossing your fingers.”
Last week's showings were in 125 major markets and college towns, so this weekend will be the film's first foray into the heartland. Most critics have liked it. Seventy-three percent of the reviews at Movie Review Intelligence are positive. And it has been the cast and laughs as much as the music that has sold the film.
“Even if its underdogs-go-for-the-title storyline doesn't break much new ground,” said TheWrap’s Alonso Duralde in his review, “the very appealing cast (led by ingenue superstar Anna Kendrick) and an overall sense of buoyant silliness advance it to the top of the class.”
Besides Oscar nominee Kendrick (“Up in the Air”), the film features Brittany Snow (TV’s “Harry’s Law”), Anna Camp (“True Blood”) and Rebel Wilson (“Bridesmaids”). Wilson plays Fat Amy (photo, left), who with typical attitude says she uses that name "so twig bitches like you wouldn't call me that behind my back." Broadway star Skylar Astin (“Spring Awakening”) provides the romantic interest for Kendrick’s character.
The movie features a cappella takes on samples and mashups of more than 40 songs from artists including Ace of Base, Nelly, Bruno Mars, Pitbull and even Simple Minds.
Comparison’s with the Fox Network's “Glee” are inevitable, and Universal has attempted to play both sides of the street in terms of marketing. It wants the "Glee" crowd of course, and has advertised the movie on the show. But the studio has taken pains to point up the differences — it's comedy over music and college not high school, for example — so moviegoers know they're getting something they can't get on TV every week.
“Pitch Perfect” is based on the non-fiction book of the same name written by Mickey Rapkin, a senior editor at GQ magazine who spent a season covering collegiate a cappella.
The director is Jason Moore, who has helmed episodes of “Everwood” and ”Dawson's Creek” and directed “Avenue Q” and "Shrek the Musical" on Broadway. Veteran "30 Rock" writer Kay Cannon's adaptation has drawn high marks from the critics.
Some have compared “Pitch Perfect’ to the similar young women-skewing comedy “Bring It On.” That $28 million film, which did for cheerleading what "Pitch" is doing for a cappella singing, grossed more than $90 million worldwide and launched a four-film franchise for Universal back in 2000.
Here's the "Pitch Perfect" trailer: