Moviemaking's New Math

When Disney opens its fairy-tale story "The Princess Diaries" on Aug. 3, the studio is confident young girls will stampede movie theaters. But the film's ultimate performance will rest on whether dad merely unloads his daughter at the curb or parks the SUV and buys himself a ticket as well. As movie after movie quickly disappears from memory, it's important to remember what makes some films stick around longer than the XFL. Sure, it helps to be good-audiences still do patronize smart works like "Memento." But quality is no guarantee of anything: If it mattered, nobody would have ever ventured into "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."

The real test among studio execs is whether a movie appeals to all four "quadrants." It sounds like some algebra equation you forgot the week after high school graduation, yet it's not that complex. Just take the moviegoing public and divide it in fourths: Men older than 25. Men younger than 25. Women older than 25. Women younger than 25. Those are Hollywood's four quadrants. The age split is arbitrary-it's the number used by the National Research Group, which does market research for the major studios. What's not arbitrary, however, is how much the studios depend on these audience groups. The basic concept of dividing the audience has been around forever, but only recently, as moviegoers become less homogenous, has it become an obsession in Hollywood.

Movies that appeal to none of these segments will fail as fast as "Pootie Tang," just as surely as movies that appeal to all four will explode. The difficult trick for the movie studios is determining which is the correct core audience, then making sure no other movie debuting the same time is chasing ticket buyers in the same quadrant. Guess right, and you have the hit movie "The Fast and the Furious." Play it wrong, and you've got a dying disappointment like "A.I. Artificial Intelligence."

There's no better example of four-quadrant power than "Shrek." DreamWorks faced a tough task trying to market the animated comedy to America. The key to a summer smash has always been repeat business from teenagers; no other age group has as much free time and spare brain cells to surrender to the multiplex. But if DreamWorks made a big effort to court the high school crowd, it risked turning off families with young kids-"Shrek"'s core audience. Ultimately, the studio chose to do nothing for the teens and to stick with the main target of families. They had even created TV ads that played up the film's double entendres, but never ran them. The risk was that if mom stumbled upon the spot on MTV, she wouldn't take her 5-year-old. Instead, DreamWorks simply let the film play to children and their parents, and strong word-of-mouth recommendations drifted out. If you go look into a "Shrek" theater today, you'll find a raft of adults and older teens filling the seats. "Shrek" is now the year's biggest winner, with more than $240 million in grosses.

What DreamWorks did so well with "Shrek," Steven Spielberg bungled with "A.I." Admittedly, critics enjoy the film much more than audiences, who have been giggling during its earnest conclusion. But well before "A.I." hit screens for the first time, it wasn't clear what audience Spielberg was pursuing. The film's logo, which Spielberg authorized, featured the silhouette of a child. The previews, which also were made under his supervision, featured young star Haley Joel Osment. Everything else, though, suggested a dark and sinister tale more appropriate for parents than kids. The cast didn't help matters. As if they were spies under enemy interrogation, none discussed what the film was about; in interviews promoting the movie, even Osment zipped his lips. As the trade newspaper Variety noted this week, the marketing campaign consequently seemed unsure whether "A.I." was Spielberg's next kid-friendly "E.T. The Extraterrestrial" or adults-only "Saving Private Ryan." By trying to appeal to children and grown-ups simultaneously, and by repeatedly invoking the name of both Spielberg and his R-rated predecessor on the film-the late Stanley Kubrick-the sales pitch confused both audiences. As the film plummets at the box office, Warners is revising its advertising, focusing less on Osment and aiming the movie more at grown-ups. But the damage has been done, and "A.I." may not recover.

At least Warners didn't open the film against a movie with identical demographic appeal. That's exactly what Sony and MGM did June 1, when Sony released Rob Schneider's "The Animal" and MGM unveiled Martin Lawrence's "What's the Worst that Could Happen?" Both lowbrow comedies appealed to lowbrow young men. MGM believed the date was lucky, as Lawrence's "Big Momma's House" had opened the same weekend a year earlier and ultimately grossed more than $117 million. What Sony was thinking is unclear-this is one of the movies its bogus critic David Manning was summoned to praise. In any case, both films cannibalized the other, cutting steeply into their revenues. In the wake of the weak performance of "What's the Worst that Could Happen," MGM fired its heads of marketing and distribution.

Sometimes, new movies overlap while chasing one of the hardest segments to reach: adults of either gender. This weekend's "The Score" is a sophisticated heist film aimed squarely at people of a certain age. The film stars Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Edward Norton, and is rated R. The few teens who may want to see it can't buy tickets. But will the film appeal to older women as much as it does older men? Julia Roberts certainly hopes not. Because next weekend, Roberts's romantic comedy "America's Sweethearts" debuts. Like "The Score," the film is geared toward people old enough to have a mortgage and reflects the comic sensibilities of costar and co-writer Billy Crystal, who's miles from hip. But producer Revolution Studios believes "The Score" will play mainly to men, leaving all the older women for "America's Sweethearts," which may draw a few teens since it's rated PG-13. In two weeks, we'll see if the thinking was sound.

Movies need not dominate all audience segments to triumph. The lesson of "The Fast and the Furious" is that if a movie truly satisfies only its intended viewers (in this case, young males), it can make a mint-$101 million and counting. The surprise is that even young women are showing up to watch the car-racing drama, making up as much as 45 percent of the audience. As a result, "The Fast and the Furious" will outperform "Tomb Raider," even though with a budget of $38 million, "The Fast and the Furious" cost about a third as much as Angelina Jolie's film.

And what of Disney? The studio isn't giving up on dads yet. The bulk of the "Princess Diaries" advertisements will be pitched to girls, but director Garry Marshall has recorded TV spots that will be broadcast on ESPN where he urges fathers to take their little girl to a movie-the ad's theme seems to be, it's much cheaper than taking her shopping. Of course, the strategy requires Dad to put down his cold Budweiser, haul his butt off the sofa and turn off the sports highlights. But if Hollywood can't believe in dreams, what can it believe in?