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Muscular ‘Expendables’ Enlivens Battle for Studio

After months of being chased by Carl C. Icahn, Lions Gateis chasing a box office hit.

Sylvester Stallone in the "The Expendables" which sold $35 million in tickets in its first weekend.
Source: lionsgatepublicity.com
Sylvester Stallone in the "The Expendables" which sold $35 million in tickets in its first weekend.

“The Expendables,” an ensemble action movie from Millennium Films and Lions Gate

— with Sylvester Stallone in both a lead role and the director’s chair — topped the domestic box officeover the weekend with an estimated $35 million in ticket sales.

Now the question becomes: Can a ministudio with a corporate raider on its tail make a real winner out of its weekend wonder?

A true hit with ticket sales of $100 million or more would bolster Lions Gate Entertainment in its attempt to ward off its persistent suitor. Mr. Icahn, who owns about 33 percent of the company, has been trying to acquire the balance for $6.50 a share.

On Friday, Lions Gate shares closed down 2 cents, at $6.35, as investors kept one eye on a lawsuit in which Mr. Icahn asked the New York Supreme Court last week to undo a debt conversion that reduced his stake from more than 37 percent.

Mr. Icahn did not respond to a query last week about whether a successful run for “The Expendables” would affect his offer for the company.

Lions Gate, under siege since March, has been hurt by the softer-than-expected results of movies like “Kick-Ass” and “Killers.” “Kick-Ass,” a raunchy comic book action movie, took in just $48 million despite heavy attention ahead of its release, but this month it rebounded with unusually strong home entertainment sales of 1.4 million units in its first week on DVD and in other formats.

The performance of “The Expendables” easily outpaced that of “Eat Pray Love,” with Julia Roberts, which took in $23.7 million for Sony Pictures Entertainment . And it more than tripled the take for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” a comic book adventure starring Michael Cera that had $10.5 million in sales for Universal Pictures . (Read: "Eat, Pray, Love and BUY")

The showing for “Pilgrim” placed it behind both “The Other Guys,” from Sony, which had $18 million in ticket sales for a total of $70.5 million in its first 10 days, and “Inception,” from Warner Brothers , which took in $11.4 million for an estimated $248.6 million since its release on July 16.

With “The Expendables,” Lions Gate not only won the weekend but also posted its second-biggest opening, behind “Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail,” according to a ranking compiled by Boxofficemojo.com. In February 2009, the Tyler Perry film had $41 million in sales its first weekend and went on to take in $90.5 million at the box office — placing it second behind Lions Gate’s biggest hit, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which had ticket sales of $119.2 million.

Asked on Sunday whether “The Expendables” — about a band of mercenaries who save a South American island from drug runners — might match those pictures, Tim Palen, Lions Gate’s co-president for theatrical marketing, was cautious.

“It’s really hard to predict the future,” Mr. Palen said. But he conceded that the film’s unexpected success among female moviegoers, who made up 39 percent of the opening-weekend audience, despite competition from Ms. Roberts, was a promising sign. The beefy “Expendables” actors “are definitely sex symbols for older women,” he said.

Lions Gate is bent on reaching as far as it can within the bounds of an advertising budget that Mr. Palen puts at somewhat less than the $40 million commonly spent on major Hollywood releases. (Millennium, which made “The Expendables” on a budget of about $80 million, sold foreign rights to various distributors.)

To promote the film without spending like its bigger competitors, Mr. Palen and his crew will rely on Mr. Stallone’s knack for publicity. And at least one stunt is aimed squarely at investors.

On Thursday, Mr. Stallone is expected to join three of his fellow cast members — Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren and Terry Crews — in sounding the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

Another promotional boon follows two days later, when the Epix home entertainment service — which is co-owned by Lions Gate, Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer — begins showing an unusually detailed 90-minute documentary called “Inferno: The Making of The Expendables” on the Epix cable channel.

The documentary is directed by John Herzfeld, whose feature film credits include “15 Minutes,” with Robert DeNiro. The documentary follows Mr. Stallone and his counterparts to Brazil and Louisiana on a grueling shoot during which they try to deliver on Mr. Stallone’s personal philosophy, which holds, more or less, that any action picture worth its salt should inflict real pain.

One motif of the documentary involves trips to the Tulane Medical Center with a 63-year-old Mr. Stallone, who endured injuries including a neck fracture while filming “The Expendables.” On camera, Mr. Stallone shrugs off a doctor who advises him to leave the production to get further treatment.

“Sly, in essence, is much more compelling than any of the characters he’s played,” said Mr. Herzfeld, a lifelong friend of Mr. Stallone’s, who turned the documentary into a story of professional survival.

Saying that “nothing comes for free,” Mark Greenberg, the Epix chief executive, said Epix actually bought “Inferno” from Lions Gate’s television unit. The unit became involved after its president, Kevin Beggs, watched scenes shot by Mr. Herzfeld and saw in them a peculiar hybrid of promotion and documentary art.

In the past, some of Lions Gate’s best bets opened well, only to fall off quickly. “Saw IV,” “Saw V” and “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion,” for instance, took in about half of their total domestic box office on their opening weekends.

This time, Mr. Palen and his colleagues have been pushing for a better result.

Long before releasing “The Expendables,” Lions Gate bought advance advertising time during the World Cup soccer broadcasts, though it still was not clear that American viewers would be tuning in. The film thus wound up with spots on what turned out to be a major ratings event.

In another maneuver, the studio sponsored three Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts, including one it picked up at a steep discount when 20th Century Fox at the last minute dropped plans to use it to plug “The A-Team.” Lions Gate put its “Expendables” logo on the trunks of a fighter, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, who happened to be a star of “The A-Team.”

The weekend’s strong opening means that prime promotional opportunities on the talk shows will most likely open up to lesser-known stars of “The Expendables.”

And, Mr. Palen said, the film will still be advertised on many of the 100 or so pornography Web sites that have provided a low-cost but effective ad buy for Lions Gate properties like the “Saw” series.

He was quick to point out that it was simply a ploy that could help a studio as small as his compete against better-financed competitors like Sony and Universal.

“We are David, and we fight against Goliaths every weekend,” he said.