You know it's an event when Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes sneak into a premiere, as they did last week just as the lights were coming down at the Mann Chinese theater for Paramount Pictures' new Star Trek film. Yes, this is the same Tom Cruise who has been on the outs with the Paramount biggies, in the wake of not-so-kind words from Sumner Redstone, chairman of Paramount parent company Viacom (VIAb). So is Cruise coming back to the Paramount fold, perhaps for the next Mission Impossible film? Probably, but it's more likely that Cruise just wanted a first look at what could mark the return to the big time for Paramount after a two-year funk while it extricated itself from the "Dreamworks Affair," aka the exit of Steven Spielberg.
Star Trek, which opens May 8, is the first major film produced solely by Paramount, which has had a great record of distributing other producers' films since Brad Grey took over as chairman four years back. The studio's 2007 mega-hit Transformers was produced in conjunction with Dreamworks, and its humongous Iron Man hit last year was produced by Marvel (MVL), which paid Paramount 8% of the movie's revenues to distribute the flick. Same for Dreamworks' animation films Shrek the Third and Monsters vs. Aliens. Maybe Star Trek won't hit warp speed like the first three—each of which grossed more than $300 million at the box office— but like the Enterprise heading out to space, it's clearly got the makings of a high-flying vehicle of its own.
Having taken in the premiere, I am betting the film, which cost $140 million to make, grosses north of $50 million on its opening weekend, and powers to nearly $200 million before it transports itself to DVD. Naturally, the Paramount folks hope it will be the opening salvo in what they're banking will be a summer of other bonanzas: the second Transformers movie hits theaters on June 24, followed in August by G.I. Joe, whose trailer is a whirl of lasers and other futuristic special effects.
What Paramount needs, of course, is a huge lift-off for Star Trek, which gives the studio the ability to load up the flick with trailers for its other two films. Paramount Vice-Chairman Rob Moore says the studio plans to put trailers for both films before Star Trek, which will be shipped to 3,800 theaters. "We see this as the launching pad for our summer," he says.
How big a launching pad is anyone's guess. Moore is quick to point out that the film has some marketing issues. It will open against the second week of Fox's (NWS) hit flick Wolverine, meaning that older folks—the ones who want to steer clear of the teen swarms for the opening weekend of action flicks—will likely head out to see Hugh Jackman and his stiletto fingernails. That means that Paramount needs to market to younger viewers, most of whom were likely not even alive when Kirk and Spock battled their first Klingon in the 1960s television series. That's why, while Wolverine opened with a steep $85 million first weekend, Moore is downplaying Star Trek's prospects. "If we can do $50 million, then I figure we have a hit, and I'm going to be making a lot more Star Trek movies," he says.
Moore figures the movie will probably generate a box office of 3.5 times its opening weekend, or $175 million. That's because older men "have to ask their wives, see what the kids are doing, and don't show up at midnight Thursday night," he says, and will likely come to the theater the second or third weeks. So the first mission is to lure the younger viewers. To do that, the film features a good-looking young cast (29-year-old Chris Pine is a hot James T. Kirk, who certainly kept my wife interested), the kind of equilibrium-altering special effects that a $30 million budget at George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic special-effects shop will get you and, hold on to your gravity boots, a little smooching from a young Spock (Heroes TV star Zachary Quinto), whose nonemotional veneer gets dented by a sexy Zoe Saldana, who plays communications officer Nyota Uhura.
To energize the faithful, Paramount also trotted out a 768-year-old Leonard Nimoy in a cameo as an aging Spock, who somehow manages to talk to his younger self in a time-altering plot that gave me a little whiplash. There are also more than a few gags that hark back to the 1960s show (The young doctor "Bones" gets airsick, for instance. Helmsman Sulu can't find the starter to send the spacecraft into warp speed.). The hope is that the film gets hefty reviews, which Moore says tends to influence the movie choices of older viewers. So far, so good: the site Rotten Tomatoes, which tabulates reviews, is giving it a 94% rating, with 63 "fresh tomatoes" out of 67 reviews.
Heavy Barrage of Promotion
Paramount could use the added fuel. The franchise has been in a decaying orbit for decades, since the William Shatner flicks started playing to half-empty houses (the 1989 version grossed a mere $52 million). The newer versions with Patrick Stewart didn't do a lot better. Plus, the flicks just didn't play well overseas. In all, the 10 Star Trek flicks have averaged a scant $75.6 million apiece, according to box office tracking site Boxofficemojo.com. Certainly, Viacom could use help, too. Its movie studio lost $123 million in the first quarter, while revenues declined by 5% to $1.08 billion.
So little wonder that Viacom has pulled out all the stops to make sure we all make the trip with the Enterprise. It started the year with a pricey Super Bowl commercial and has spent upwards of $50 million to market the flick with flashy TV ads. Director J.J. Abrams became a one-man tour bus for the film, appearing at film festivals in Rome, Berlin, and elsewhere to show 20 minutes of the film—unheard of for big-budget flicks. That set off a ton of Twittering that will no doubt bring in the kind of younger viewers who come back more than once to see a hot-selling flick.
Then there's the Nimoy factor. The 78-year-old actor (his real age) hit the promo wagon with Abrams, traveling to Comic-Con with him, reading a Top 10 List for David Letterman, and taking a recurring guest spot on Fringe, the Fox network TV show that Abrams also created and produced. Will an aging Spock help sell the new Star Trek to an adoring new audience? When Abrams introduced him to the premiere crowd, the place went wild.
That's the plan. And it may just work. The movie ticketing site Fandango, whose advance ticket sales are usually a good indicator of how a film will open, says that three days ahead of its opening weekend, more than 100 theaters were already sold out, and Star Trek accounted for 81% of all tickets it had sold. Moreover, of the 4,000 folks it had surveyed, 10% of them planned to show up in a Star Trek costume. Yup, the crazies are already lining up. And I'm figuring so will a bunch of their better-dressed friends.
Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek.