Friday, October 4, 2002. Jonah’s release date. It’s amazing to find yourself in a position where 3 years of hard work will be justified – or not – in one day. While opening day box office doesn’t necessarily tell you exactly how a film will perform, it tells you a lot. For Jonah to pay back its production and marketing costs and have any hope of returning additional monies to stabilize Big Idea, we figured we needed at least an $8 million opening weekend. Given that our film was only going out on 800 screens (as opposed to the 3000+ of major family films), an $8 million gross was aggressive, though theoretically achievable. More importantly, that kind of gross would get noticed by the newspapers, which would get people talking, which could lead to the kind of buzz that can boost a film to a whole different level. Suffice it to say, we were all a little tense.
The first call from Artisan came in at about 2pm central time, just a few hours after the film had opened on the East coast and in the Midwest. 3 or 4 of us huddled in a marketing room to listen. The numbers were off the chart. Huge. Moms with preschoolers were evidently turning out in droves – selling out afternoon screenings. We were so happy we felt like crying. And dancing. If those numbers held up, we could be looking at a $10+ million opening weekend which would place Jonah in the top 2 or 3 films that week and earn us lots of free press in newspapers across America. Perhaps God was going to use Jonah to save Big Idea after all.
The second call came at 4pm. Something had changed. The numbers now didn’t look nearly as good as just two hours earlier. While some theaters were selling out, others appeared to be half empty. The first numbers from our 120 screens in Canada were horrid. Our visions of a $10 million opening weekend melted. $8 million didn’t look very likely either. Artisan believed we were headed somewhere in the vicinity of $6 million. We deflated. While respectable, $6 million probably wouldn’t put the film on track to recoup its investment, much less bail out the rest of the company. In just two hours we had gone from euphoria to deflation – an emotional swing so powerful that even 2 1/2 years later, it feels like it happened yesterday.
The final number for opening weekend was $6.5 million, below the $8 million we were hoping for but enough to earn Artisan congratulatory calls from competing studios. Conventional wisdom in Hollywood had Jonah opening at about $3 million. Artisan was thrilled, and immediately requested approval to spend another $3 million on TV ads to keep the momentum going. Perhaps Jonah would have the “legs” of a “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” they reasoned. Additional ads could carry quotes from the generally positive reviews we were receiving. While I had serious misgivings about spending any more money on the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if an extra boost at this critical moment might be the thing that would push Jonah over the proverbial hump. Maybe that $3 million would mean the difference between a $20 million gross and a $40 million gross. Maybe that $3 million would save the company. I approved the additional spend.
In the end, Jonah grossed just over $25 million at the domestic box office. Since half of that money stays with the theaters, Artisan received a little more than $12 million, which wasn’t enough to recoup the $15 million they had spent marketing the film. (Artisan wasn’t worried, though, since they would continue recouping their money from the home video release.) On the one hand, $25 million was a lot more than the $18 million I had originally projected. Jonah was the 6th highest grossing movie in America on opening weekend (bumped out of the top 5 by the surprise success of the urban comedy “Barbershop”) and the number two film in America in terms of gross per theater. Virtually everyone in Hollywood was surprised by our performance, which would help us immensely in trying to put together subsequent films. But the reality was clear that Jonah was unlikely to return its own investment, much less fund the rest of Big Idea.
“Well,” I thought, “maybe if the home video doesreally, really well…”
I was beginning to sound like a Cubs fan.
Continued in Part 9 >