Biggest opening weekend of all time! Biggest single-day gross ever! Box office records shattered in 29 nations! The No. 1 movie in 107 countries! When Spider-Man 3 premiered last week, records tumbled all over the world. And the champagne corks went flying through the Sony offices after the weekend's final results $151.1 million in the U.S. and Canada alone rolled in. Spidey didn't merely break Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest's total for the best three-day gross ever, it obliterated it by more than $15 million, setting a new benchmark. Ditto its first Friday ($59.8 million)...Saturday ($51.3 million)...and Sunday ($39.9 million) earnings. If there were a record for the number of records broken in one weekend, Spider-Man 3 would have likely broken that, too.
But Spidey's monumental bank deposit is just one of the reasons Sony has for celebration. The opening also proves the studio can successfully premiere a movie that was scrutinized and dissected on the Internet throughout its entire production, probably more so than any other film in history. Such is the new reality for filmmakers behind high-profile comic-book adaptations and blockbuster sequels, who increasingly depend on the Net as a vital marketing tool but must also contend with fans who rabidly pick apart, analyze, and leak early peeks at upcoming projects online. ''I'm at a loss to know how to deal with that,'' says Spider-Man 3 director Sam Raimi. ''But it's the world we live in. I just have to adapt.''
As do the studios, which are now starting to play ball with spoiler-hungry fans through official channels, anyway. ''It's a tightrope act,'' says Sony's domestic-marketing president, Valerie Van Galder, who oversaw a campaign that included premiering a seven-and-a-half-minute section of Spider-Man 3 on NBC.com and a 60-second preview that aired during Heroes. ''How do you deal with the voracious appetite for content [when] there's only so much exclusive footage you can give before you've shown the entire movie in pieces?'' Some would prefer that impatient consumers see as little on the Web beforehand as possible. Raimi, for one, bristles when that seven-and-a-half-minute clip is mentioned. Spider-Man 3, he says, ''was designed to be a big-screen event, with sound moving around the theater and big visuals. It wasn't meant for TV, let alone the Internet.''
Good luck trying to change that. Obviously, filmmakers would ''like people to come to the finished movie fresh,'' says Spider-Man 3 producer Laura Ziskin, but many fansites have ensured that waiting is no longer the only option. ''Everybody can choose what they want to read and what they don't,'' says Harry Knowles, founder of the spoiler-rich website Ain't It Cool News, which started posting scores of Spider-Man 3 rumors in mid-2004. By the time the movie went into production in January 2006, unauthorized pictures flooded the Web almost daily. Soon everything from what the villains looked like to intricate details about the plot were available online. Now studios have become complicit in a tricky game of give-and-take by shooting on public streets or releasing certain details while holding others back. ''It's like we unwrap the candy bar but then say, 'You can't eat it,''' says star Kirsten Dunst. ''We're just dangling it in front of your face.''
Still, no one is getting overconfident. For every Spidey, there are 10 movies like Catwoman, which found bad early Internet buzz impossible to overcome. While commentary both positive and negative is already circulating about Paramount's Transformers (out July 4) and Indiana Jones 4 (which hasn't even started shooting yet), the studio's worldwide marketing president, Gerry Rich, says ''the good news is you have a movie that's worthy of a lot of conversations. And the people who are talking are going to be in line opening day.''
For upcoming franchise films like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (out June 15), The Golden Compass (due Dec. 7), and 2008's Iron Man and the Batman entry The Dark Knight, similar concerns abound. ''We expect information will get out,'' says Aaron Sugarman, senior VP of interactive marketing at New Line, which is producing Compass. To promote the fantasy thriller, Sugarman's team invited fansite staffers to the set. And rather than fight a blogger who was posting Hairspray spoilers, the studio gave him a job writing for the film's official website.
Manipulative? Perhaps. But Sugarman argues that it's exactly the kind of thing that a studio should be offering in the age of the Internet spoiler: ''It's important to start that relationship-building [with fans]. You can involve them and be honest with them.'' In the end, the burgeoning practice of befriending the enemy may just be the best deterrent to unapproved leaks and bad buzz. Because the last thing filmmakers and studios want to see is the entirety of their next blockbuster coming soon, in fuzzy bits and pieces, to a computer near you. Additonal reporting by Steve Daly and Adam Markovitz
Sure, Spider-Man 3 dealt with its share of scrutiny. But it didn't inspire as much ranting as these films did:
+1988 MICHAEL KEATON CAST AS BATMAN
Bemoaned Bat-thusiasts, "Beetlejuice is playing the Dark Knight?!?"
+1998 EPISODE 1 DUBBED 'THE PHANTOM MENACE'
Star Wars nerds found the title campy—and vexingly cryptic.
+2000 SPIDER-MAN'S NEW WEB SHOOTER
"Historians" were infuriated by Sam Raimi's decision to make Spidey's web shooter a mutant power instead of a mechanical gadget.
+2007 THE WISPY VILLAIN IN 'FANTASTIC FOUR 2'
An 'FF2' insider reveals that the evil Galactus sort of looks like...a storm cloud.