July 14, 2006

Map to ‘Pirates’ Gold Keeps Hollywood Guessing

By Gregg Kilday

LOS ANGELES -- Given the intensity with which the media scrutinize movie ticket sales, last weekend's record $136 million opening of Walt Disney Pictures' "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" was reported as if it were manna in a box office desert.

Certainly, "Dead Man's Chest" was good news for beleaguered theater owners. And the movie has kept up its torrid pace this week, with $18.1 million on Monday, $15.7 million on Tuesday (a record Tuesday haul) and $14.2 million on Wednesday. It also was good news for Disney, even if the studio, rather than going on a spending spree, is preparing for cutbacks.

But the rest of the industry shouldn't break out the champagne just yet, because "Dead Man's Chest" doesn't offer any obvious object lessons. Often, a surprise hit, like the movie's predecessor, 2003's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," relaunches a genre. 2000's "Gladiator" ushered in a new wave of historical epics; 2002's "Chicago" triggered the development of a dozen musicals, even if most have yet to find their way to the screen.

After the resounding 1995 flop of "Cutthroat Island," pirate movies had been left for dead. And the first "Pirates" hasn't really inspired a resurrection of that subgenre. The "Pirates" movies don't point the way to other period romps, either. "Casanova," released under Disney's Touchstone label, tried that in December, but grossed just $11 million. Similarly, last fall's "The Legend of Zorro" only managed to swashbuckle its way to a domestic gross of $46 million, less than half of the $94 million that 1998's "The Mask of Zorro" collected.

To lure in moviegoers of all ages, "Dead Man's Chest," as written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and directed by Gore Verbinski, promised not just comedy and romance, but also action and fantasy. But blending those disparate qualities is no slam dunk as the current "Superman Returns" is discovering: It may have a taste of all four elements, but not in the same sure-fire recipe.

"Dead Man's Chest" attracted men and women, young and old, thanks to a trio of stars -- Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley -- with broad appeal. And yet, individually, none of them has ever before shown the same boxoffice moxie.

Depp has headlined three previous movies that have grossed more than $100 million: Last summer's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" ($206 million), the first "Pirates" ($305 million) and 1999's "Sleepy Hollow" ($101 million). He also was part of the ensemble cast in 1986's "Platoon" ($138 million). But this year, headlining "The Libertine," which bowed in just 815 locations, he attracted just $4.8 million. He's a proudly idiosyncratic actor, who requires the right, crowd-pleasing role to perform as an opening weekend draw.

Bloom might have even more blockbusters on his resume -- the three "The Lord of the Rings" movies, the first "Pirates," "Troy" and "Black Hawk Down" -- but in each he has been part of an ensemble. When he has taken centerstage -- in the period "Kingdom of Heaven" ($47 million) and the contemporary "Elizabethtown" ($27 million) -- he has stumbled. Same with Knightley. Although her recent "Pride & Prejudice" did respectable art-house numbers ($39 million), the hard-edged "Domino" only mustered $10 million.

With "Dead Man's Chest" though, the sum has proven wildly more popular than its individual parts. Anyone looking to ape its success is going to find duplicating its formula a maddeningly difficult proposition. The "Pirates" movies actually are sui generis -- they don't offer any easy maps for other treasure-hunters to follow.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter