Matrix: Stephen Kronigner
Steve Daly
May 30, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The masses exiting ”The Matrix Reloaded” did plenty of head scratching. Like, if Keanu Reeves’ Neo can fly, why does he bother fighting 100 Agent Smiths? Who named Isaac Hayes musical director of rave night in Zion? And should Morpheus rechristen himself Maximus, given Laurence Fishburne’s amazing new belly?

But in Hollywood, studio execs seem to have it all figured out — this movie’s torrential opening grosses ($134 million in just four days) have forged a new template for the way blockbusters will open from here on out. Here are four paradigm shifts to watch for:

R IS FOR REVENUE Theaters didn’t seem to try awfully hard to thwart unaccompanied teens under 17, who theoretically shouldn’t have been able to enter the ”Matrix” without a parent or guardian. Revealed one underage patron at a ‘plex in Greenburgh, N.Y., ”We can pretend we’re seeing ‘Daddy Day Care’ and sneak in.”

But if an R-rated ”Terminator” sequel (”T3: Rise of the Machines”) rides the ”Matrix” tailwind through its July 4 opening weekend to huge numbers, Hollywood could say hasta la vista to shunning R pictures. (Last year’s summertime top 10 featured not a single R-rated flick.) If that happens, violence, not sex, will likely slink back onto the scene in a major way. ”Parents don’t have as much of a problem with violence,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. ”Their kids already view a lot of it on TV and in videogames, so they figure, what the heck. Certain [R-rated] genres get a pass if the subject matter is not overtly sexual.”

In other words, ”Matrix” fine; ”American Pie” sequel ”American Wedding” not fine.

ENTER THE UNIPLEX A state-of-the-art movie emporium now has between 14 and 30 screens — and five, six, and seven of them got taken over by ”Matrix Reloaded” at many locations. Agent Smith must have been replicating the prints. Result: ”Matrix Reloaded” sucked the ”multi” right out of the multiplex.

”We’ve created sort of a monster,” says Fox Searchlight distribution president Steve Gilula, who has helped build sleeper indie hit ”Bend It Like Beckham” to a 500-plus-screen run alongside the Hollywood bruisers. ”We’ve trained the public to always look for the next big [box office] record breaker, and it puts unfair pressure on the release patterns.” More than ever, the big studios’ need for the broadest possible opening ghettoizes indie flicks to art-house screens between May and August (which is why ”My Big Fat Greek Wedding” didn’t go wide until August last year).

THREE WEEKS AND YOU’RE OUT Remember when George Lucas insisted that 1999’s ”Star Wars: Episode I” get a 12-week guaranteed run? That is so 20th century. A decade ago, the summer’s top 10, including ”Jurassic Park,” grossed an average of only 54 percent of their total ticket sales by the end of weekend 3. By last summer, the figure had soared to 75 percent. You’re new or you’re through in theaters, so expect to see the same kind of maximum-screen, maximum-hoopla campaigns for ”Charlie’s Angels” and ”The Hulk.”

”The cost of opening a movie has gotten crazily out of whack,” explains Revolution Studios partner Tom Sherak, who’ll help shepherd the oldfangled cop movie ”Hollywood Homicide” to theaters next month. ”So you better get your money back up front, because there’s no second wave.”

COMING SOONER ON VIDEO Actually, there is a second wave: the rapidly expanding DVD market. For any aspiring movie franchise, DVDs of a given installment become de facto commercials for subsequent chapters — a strategy that worked exponentially well for ”Austin Powers.” And ”Matrix” will accelerate the daisy-chain pattern, with a DVD-only tie-in of anime-style ‘toon shorts due next week (already heavily teased online) that will cross-promote both ”Reloaded” and the upcoming ”Matrix Revolutions.”

Amazingly, the simultaneous explosion of old-favorite choices on DVD isn’t dulling audiences’ hunger to see the latest films right away in theaters. As Searchlight’s Gilula puts it, ”We’ve created a behavioral shift among moviegoers by expanding screens and print runs. Essentially, [we’ve] reprogrammed the public…to believe they must see a movie on opening weekend.”

”The Matrix Reloaded”’s all-powerful Architect would approve. (Additional reporting by Joshua Rich and Rebecca Isenberg)

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