"The Lovely Bones" has all the adornments of a prestige drama aimed at adults. It was made by an Oscar-winning director, adapted from an acclaimed novel and features weighty subject matter.
Given that pedigree, Paramount Pictures was stunned to discover that the film's most promising target audience is teenage and college-aged girls.
Directed by Peter Jackson and based on Alice Sebold's best-selling 2002 novel, "The Lovely Bones" tells the tale of a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered and watches over her family and killer from the afterlife.
Most people involved in the film originally thought it would primarily appeal to older moviegoers. But, after test research on the movie, Paramount found there was a potentially hidden audience of females between ages 13 and 25.
That has led the studio to flip-flop its marketing strategy for the PG-13 film in hopes of tapping the same audience that propelled the "Twilight" movies to the box-office stratosphere.
"No one initially thought that 14- to 21-year-old girls would be the sweet spot," said Kevin Goetz, president of worldwide motion picture group for OTX, the research company that held a Nov. 19 screening of "Lovely Bones" in Kansas City, Mo., for teenage and college-aged girls. "They found the movie disturbing but it didn't impede their enjoyment."
"Lovely Bones" exemplifies how studios sometimes believe they have a firm understanding of what they are selling but are later surprised when moviegoers in focus groups and early screenings weigh in with contrary opinions.
The unexpected interest among girls could prove a life saver when the movie opens nationwide Jan. 15, since adults so far appear to be lukewarm on the picture. Ticket sales from its first weekend at three theaters in Los Angeles and New York were underwhelming, reviews have been mostly negative and the movie received just one Golden Globe nomination — a sign that it could be largely ignored at Oscar time.
Paramount will have to draw huge numbers of teenage girls to make a financial success of the effects-laden film, on which it has roughly $150 million in production, advertising and distribution costs at stake. That's why films targeted at a narrow demographic are typically produced at a much lower cost. "Twilight" and its sequel "New Moon" are rare examples of movies that have grossed well above $300 million worldwide without significant support from adults or young men.
While it remains to be seen how many young women will turn out for "The Lovely Bones," the Kansas City screening established that those who see it like the supernatural aspects and view it as a female empowerment tale.
The film's protagonist, portrayed by Irish actress Saorise Ronan, helps her family cope with loss and solve her murder. In describing their visceral reaction, attendees used words like "suspenseful," "moving," "scary" and "exciting," Goetz said.
Paramount has designed an aggressive promotional campaign kicking off next week featuring TV spots that play up the movie's thriller elements on MTV and such popular teenage series as "Gossip Girl," "One Tree Hill" and "Glee."