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Smurfs big at the box office!

DreamWorks/Universal's Cowboys & Aliens ticked up slightly from Friday to Saturday, while Sony Pictures' The Smurfs ticked down slightly. So it all depends on Sunday whether the Western/scifi mashup or the little blue guys get bragging (and marketing) rights as the #1 opening movie. Right now both Uni and Sony are projecting Cowboys and Smurfs tied at $36.2M for the weekend. Let's see when the dust clears for Monday's actuals. But a Sony exec emails me, "If we beat them or even are close Saturday, we've got them as our Sunday will definitely be better."

What is crystal clear is that Smurfs is overperforming way beyond expectations while Cowboys & Aliens is way behind expectations to the point of tanking. What's more humiliating than Hollywood execs overestimating the opening for Cowboys and having it fall short? Having their well-pedigreed motion picture with big Hollywood writers (Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman), stars (Daniel Craig & Harrison Ford), director (Jon Favreau), and producers (Steven Spielberg & Ron Howard & Brian Grazer) beaten at the box office by Smurfs. Especially with Smurfs playing in 355 fewer North American theaters than Cowboys but charging higher 3D ticket prices. Smurfs even beat Cowboys on CinemaScores: 'A' vs 'B'. The other major studio release was Warner Bros' rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love which received 'B+' CinemaScore and opened to the normal $19.3M for the weekend. This is another big summer weekend with overall moviegoing $175M which is +20% from last year.

Sure, it's easy to look down your nose at The Smurfs, but the studio tells me it was brought in out of turnaround from Paramount by no less than Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman/CEO Michael Lynton. Animation was overseen by Bob Osher and Hannah Minghella (who is now president of production for Sony's Columbia Pictures) while live action was shepherded by Doug Belgrad. Marketing was taken in hand by Jeff Blake and Marc Weinstock. Hollywood never expected Smurfs to have such a phenomenal Friday except Sony. "The studio has always had confidence in the franchise," an exec gushed to me. Exit polls showed that 35% of this weekend's audience was general moviegoers while 65% was kids with parents. Of the family sample, 40% were parents of children under age 12 and 25% were children under 12. The overall breakdown showed the film skewed female with 64% of the audience moms and/or their daughters. The general age breakdown showed 45% was under 25 and 55% was 25+. Overall, 3D accounted for 45% of all ticket sales.

The cartoon first launched in Europe in 1958 so the pic was tracking well overseas after Global Smurfs Day was organized by Sony in Brussels, Athens, The Hague, Dublin, Mexico City, Panama City, Warsaw, Moscow, Johannesburg, London, and NYC (which celebrated Smurfs Week including lighting the Empire State Building Smurf blue in a special event with UNICEF). There was even a small town in Spain where the village volunteered to paint their entire town Smurf blue. And Smurfs fans set a new Guinness world record for the largest gathering of people dressed as the little blue guys within a 24-hour period in multiple venues. "That, plus a huge opening in Spain, makes for a pretty Smurfy opening with worldwide prospects for France, Belgium, and Germany opening next week," a Sony exec says.

Look, I don't get the appeal of garden gnomes or troll dolls or Smurfs for that matter. They creep me out, frankly. But the little blue guys were first drawn by Belgian artist Pierre “Peyo” Culliford for a comic book. The “Schtroumpfs,” as they were initially called, have lasted 50 years and generated comics, books, television series, films, videogames, live shows, and figurines. The Smurfs movie also took a long time to come to the Big Screen. In 1980, the late (and great) Brandon Tartikoff developed the Hanna-Barbera show on NBC for Saturday mornings. It ran 8 years. In 1997, producer Jordan Kerner sent the first of a series of letters to Lafig, the licensing agent for the Smurfs brand, as a first step to making a movie. And in 2002, after seeing Kerner’s adaptation of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Peyo’s heirs gave the OK. Starring Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays, Sofia Vergara, and Hank Azaria, the roon/live action hybrid was directed by Raja Gosnell. Screenplay credits went to J. David Stem & David N. Weiss and Jay Scherick & David Ronn with story by J. David Stem & David N. Weiss.

Sony focused its marketing first and foremost on introducing this brand to a whole new generation of kids who were not familiar with it. "The campaign used a two-pronged approach: one track targeted kids and children while the other hit the baby boomers who grew up with the hit NBC series and had a nostalgic connection to this brand from their youth," a Sony exec says. NBCUniversal, as the longtime home of the Smurfs' TV show, aired Sony's custom animation and custom promos including Smurfs-branded spots, vignettes, in-show integrations, logo animations, sneak peeks, and digital extensions during the past two weeks. One showed the Smurfs taking over an NBCUniversal control room. There also were Nickelodeon sneak peaks during the Saturday Morning Animation Block hosted by Neil Patrick Harris.

In the consumer marketing arena, 3rd party partners included McDonald’s planned the year's largest global campaign in over 30,000 restaurants. Post cereal, which created the original Smurf Berry Crunch in 1983, is back again with a limited edition blue and white breakfast cereal and collectible box featuring two sides: one with 3D movie graphics and the other with the classic Smurf cartoon art. Gourmet Trading Company put the Smurfs into the nation’s grocery store produce aisles as the company featured the Smurfs on its packages of blueberries.

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