Sweeney Todd opened to excellent reviews (87% fresh on Rottentomatoes.com) and strong initial numbers on Friday, but the movie dropped
an estimated 28 % (actually 25%) between Friday and Saturday. (Here’s Sunday’s Variety weekend boxoffice report.) This indicates that many viewers were lured by Paramount’s mainstream horror-driven ad campaign, which did not sell the film as a Stephen Sondheim musical, and walked away disappointed. (The company also seeded the internet with clips showing the musical numbers.) Selling a unique movie like this, where there is no tried-and-true pattern to follow, is admittedly tricky. So Paramount made the call to go wide with 1200 runs–and not build the movie from fewer runs in sophisticated urban markets. It now looks like Dreamworks’ initial strategy might have been the right way to go. That way early adopters would spread good word and build an audience slowly over time, rather than folks being lured into seeing a movie that they wind up not liking–and spreading bad word.
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Sweeney Todd is a great movie. But it is the kind of unusual and arty film that requires delicate, special handling. OK, so what if it isn’t a movie with mass-market appeal? Will the Academy come through for a great film that is tainted in the marketplace? And what happened with the Screen Actors Guild bypassing Sweeney? It’s quite possible that many of the SAG committee members did not see the late-breaking Sweeney; the DVD finally went out Saturday.
UPDATE: According to DreamWorks, the plan was to start at 800 screens; based on tracking and reaction to the movie they expanded to l200. The two studios agreed to the plan. There were several different spots for the movie, some with music, some not.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]