Hate the Flick? Some Theaters Offer Refunds
By KATE KELLY
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
June 29, 2005; Page B1
Faced with sagging box-office revenue, studios and theater chains are
testing out novel strategies for getting the public back into movie
Those tactics will be in full force during the coming Independence Day
holiday weekend. Continuing a promotion unveiled last weekend, AMC Entertainment Inc.'s theaters plan to offer full-ticket refunds to moviegoers who don't like "Cinderella Man" -- a flick that opened to disappointing attendance.
The no-hassle money-back guarantee is a rarity in the business, where fans who sit through awful flicks usually leave with little more than bad memories.
But AMC's results are encouraging enough that CinemarkInc., another big exhibitor, is planning a similar promotion for the three-day weekend.
To boost this weekend's attendance of "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith," News Corp.'s Twentieth Century Fox is offering a buy-three-get-one-free deal -- an obvious gambit to cram families into theaters (and maybe even lure them back for a second viewing). Fox is also hoping to compete with "War of the Worlds," a joint release from Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures, which opens today. Fox's tongue-in-cheek slogan: May the Fourth Be With You.
That campaign follows one from Walt Disney Co., which promoted its family comedy "Herbie: Fully Loaded" by offering free sneak-preview tickets to anyone whose name was a derivation of Herbert.
The moves illustrate some of the pressures Hollywood is facing this summer. Compared to last year, weekend box-office receipts have been down for 18 straight weekends, the longest stretch recorded in at least two decades. So far this year, according to the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co., box office revenue is down 6% domestically, and movie attendance has slumped 10% compared to last year. For a theatrical industry already beset by competition from videogames, video-on-demand, DVDs, and piracy, it's a worrisome time.
The attendance-goosing efforts notwithstanding, some movie-business
veterans are skeptical that the latest tactics will work. Tom Sherak, a partner at Revolution Studios, says that in his experience, money-back guarantees can backfire. Mr. Sherak, the former distribution chief at Fox, says that studio tried such a gimmick for a 1994 remake of "Miracle on 34th Street," which resulted in people demanding refunds because they were late to a movie or couldn't afford to pay for tickets in the first place.
When it comes to the moviegoing public, "giving it to them for free, or
giving them the ability to get their money back, it's just not a driving force" to boost attendance, he says.
The exhibitors offering "Cinderella Man" refunds disagree. "We just really believe that 'Cinderella Man' is a special picture," says Dick Walsh, film group chairman at AMC, the nation's second-largest theater circuit. "It's first class up and down, almost certain to be nominated for Academy Awards, and we just wanted to do whatever we could to
Mr. Walsh remembers just one other time when his company undertook such an offer: 1988, with the movie "Mystic Pizza." As the first leading role for Julia Roberts, who would later become a huge star, a money-back guarantee for that movie was a prescient move. Still, it was an isolated one: while the promotion bore "good results" at the box office, says Mr. Walsh, AMC didn't consider doing it again.
That is, until "Cinderella Man."
Based on the true story of Jim Braddock, a down-on-his-luck boxer who rose to national prominence after winning an underdog championship match in the depths of the Depression, the movie cost roughly $90 million to make, before marketing expenses. But with director Ron Howard and actors Russell Crowe and Renée Zellweger starring, Universal Pictures, a unit of General Electric Co., had high hopes for its success.
Over a steak dinner around the time of the movie's June 3 opening, Mr.
Walsh and Peter Brown, chairman of AMC, told executives at Universal Pictures that "Cinderella Man" was one of the best movies they had seen recently. But the film took in just $18 million during its crucial opening weekend, and in the days that followed, it was eclipsed by the behavior of Mr. Crowe, who was arrested for hurling a telephone at a New York City hotel employee.
Stung by the movie's disappointing box-office performance, Mr. Walsh called Nikki Rocco, president of domestic distribution at Universal, to suggest the money-back guarantee.
"This is your call, Dick," Ms. Rocco remembers saying. But she was thrilled with the idea. "It's just their innovative way of trying to
get a message across," she says, "and 'Cinderella Man,' I think, will be a
film...that people will remember."
Since AMC and Universal share movie-ticket revenue, the decision to proceed was ultimately a joint one. But Mr. Walsh says he's pleased with last weekend's turnout for "Cinderella Man," which has taken in $50 million since its opening. "The drop it experienced from the preceding weekend was the least out of all the top-ten pictures [currently playing]," he says.
AMC plans to press forward in the coming weeks, and says that consumers so far are not abusing the offer. In rare cases, people did request their money back -- with no questions asked. Cinemark, the third-largest U.S. movie chain, decided yesterday to offer the "Cinderella Man" guarantee as well. Texas-based Cinemark is in heavy competition with AMC in some big markets. "We'll try it in some select markets and see if it works," says a Cinemark spokeswoman.
Man, I wish this plan was in effect when I saw Meet the Parents and There's Something About Mary in the theater. (Yes, There's Something About Mary.) Maybe this is why I'm so choosy with the films I see (especially in a theater) . . .