Movie makers find fun factor

Record-breaking `Pirates' debut bolsters box office

July 11, 2006|By CHRIS KALTENBACH AND MICHAEL SRAGOW | CHRIS KALTENBACH AND MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITICS

A swashbuckling tale + star power = booming box office. Could the formula be that simple?

For an industry that was supposed to be dying, Hollywood is having one fine summer. Box-office receipts have been up eight straight weeks compared with last year's. And since January, Americans have spent a combined $4.96 billion for movie tickets - a 6.75 percent increase over 2005.

Things got even better for the industry last weekend, as Johnny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest brought in a record-setting $135.6 million at the U.S. box office, beating out by more than $20 million the reigning champion, 2002's Spider-Man. (In contrast, the highest-earning film over the July Fourth weekend, Superman Returns, brought in $76 million.)

"This proves the notion that people are uninterested in going to the movies is invalid," says Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations, a Los Angeles-based box-office tracking firm. "It just takes more to get them into the movie theaters, because the competition [from other kinds of entertainment] is so strong. It has to be a movie with very strong appeal."

One year ago this week, the movie industry was emerging from a 19-week downturn. Industry doomsayers were predicting the demise of Hollywood: Moviegoers were distracted by DVDs, cable channels and computer games, they said. Tickets were too expensive. And the experience of going to the theater simply wasn't what it used to be.

Now industry observers are pointing to recent successes of films such as X-Men: The Last Stand (which has earned $224.5 million since opening May 26), Superman Returns ($141.7 million in just 12 days), even the Adam Sandler comedy Click ($105.9 million in three weeks).

Hollywood might be reinvigorating itself by returning to what it traditionally has done: Giving people what they want. The success of Dead Man's Chest springs from a combination of old-fashioned star power, a story rooted in centuries-old heroic archetypes and American audiences' fondness for spending summer evenings at the movies.

"When people think of summer blockbusters, they think of pure escapist entertainment. Pirates of the Caribbean enables people for 2 1/2 hours to take their popcorn, sit down and have fun - just have a good time. That's why people go to the movies," Dergarabedian says. Pirates "is a perfect summer movie."

It hasn't hurt that Disney, the studio that released the Depp movie, launched a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign that included tie-ins with such disparate companies as Volvo, Kodak, McDonald's, Kellogg's, Visa, Gibson guitars, MySpace, Verizon, Valpak, M&M candies, even the Bahamas tourist board.

And then there's the Depp factor. Even critics who disliked the film have largely praised the actor, whose Capt. Jack Sparrow is certainly the tipsiest, most affected pirate ever to sail the Hollywood seas. Depp's fan base is wide: Pre-teen audiences (especially girls) think he's cute; adolescents appreciate his sense of rebelliousness; and more mature audiences appreciate his artistic daring. Ever since Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl took in $305.4 million three years ago, fans have been eagerly awaiting the sequel.

"Depp is a huge star," says screenwriter Bruce Feirstein (Tomorrow Never Dies, GoldenEye). "He's a heartthrob for the female audience, and a hoot for the guys." Adds Todd McCarthy, Variety's chief movie critic, "I think there's some magical enticement surrounding Johnny Depp in this role."

Dead Man's Chest also brings back to the screen Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom as the young lovers who reluctantly find themselves allied with Sparrow. English actor Bill Nighy plays the film's villain, maritime legend Davy Jones, who is looking to take possession of Sparrow's soul (at least what there is of it).

"I liked the first one, and I heard that Johnny Depp was even funnier in this one," says Misa Harrison, 18, of Glen Burnie, who saw the movie yesterday afternoon at the Muvico Egyptian 24 Theaters at Arundel Mills. "I like all of his movies because they are original."

Both Pirate films offer moviegoers characters as old as storytelling itself. "Jack Sparrow is the charming rogue," says Feirstein, "an outlaw with a heart of gold and his own code of ethics. And this archetype finds its roots in everything from Butch Cassidy to Robin Hood to the Greeks. ... People respond to outlaws who turn out to be good guys at heart"

Critics, however, have been largely unimpressed. "Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley manage to sparkle, but this overstuffed sequel is no treasure," wrote Stephanie Zacharek of salon.com. "A long, tedious and convoluted follow-up to 2003's rollicking high-seas hit," huffs Steven Rea of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Boston Globe's Ty Burr called it, "A noisy and lazy stopgap movie that goes absolutely nowhere and takes 2 1/2 hours to get there."

But even they can't deny the film's appeal. Joe Morgenstern, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for The Wall Street Journal, tells of a friend's 16-year-old daughter, the valedictorian of her high-school class, who joined two friends in seeing the film first thing Friday morning.

"They had no sleep that night and went to Hollywood to a 6 a.m. screening and came back from it completely fulfilled," he says, bemused, "these three extraordinarily intelligent young women."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Joe Burris and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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