Before the weekend of May 3, we were a splintered nation. Some of us were seeing Changing Lanes, some Ice Age, others The Rookie. Someone even walked into Life or Something Like It. We were lost, lonely demographics, having our own little experiences all by ourselves. And then along came your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. In that one weekend, about 20 million Americans saw Spider-Man, making Sony $115 million--by far the most any film has ever made in a weekend (and a nonholiday one at that). By this coming weekend, Spider-Man, which cost about $120 million to make and $50 million to market, was expected to have earned $225 million. But by breaking the four-minute mile of Hollywood--the $100 million opening weekend--Spidey has shrewdly fine-tuned the rules about moviemaking, marketing and distribution. It also marks the beginning of what is sure to be the biggest moviegoing summer ever.
We yearn for mass events, and no one has figured out how to create them better than the movies. The movie business, more than ever, is the blockbuster business--the big money is in getting everyone to see your movie in its first week and then feeding them sequels and T shirts and theme-park rides and bonus-packed DVDs as reminiscence. Because there are a limited number of blockbusters a year, they are the only form of entertainment that still seems special.
Whereas movies and music once built an audience slowly, entertainment is now disposable, designed to gather a heterogeneous society together for one week and then fade away. We have become a first-week culture.
When the networks gave way to the splintervision of cable and rock subgenred itself out of the business of unifying youth, we lost our national conversation. Since then, we have been trying to rebuild an Ed Sullivan from spare parts. Television, having mostly traded in mass storytelling for niche storytelling, has supplemented its limited diet of universally appealing programs like the Oscars and the Super Bowl by creating semireal events like The Bachelor and Survivor. Albums are one-week events: platinum albums are no longer achieved after two hit singles snake their way up Casey Kasem's chart but rather in the very first weeks, through promotion, before beginning their swift, inevitable drop. But no one has figured out how to create a blockbuster that generates a national conversation better than Spider-Man.
Sony had a simple marketing campaign, with those billboards featuring a masked red-and-blue character and the release date (perhaps inspired by Warner Bros.' immensely successful tease for the Batman franchise in 1989). But the real genius was knowing what people cared about: the Date. It was also having a product that did not need marketing. "We knew that people know what Spider-Man is. We didn't want to come in with bombastic catchphrases," says Avi Arad, president of Marvel Studios. If a star saves 30 minutes of character exposition, a superhero probably saves a full hour. The name Spider-Man gets you 10 minutes more. Not even Rob Schneider movies (The Animal and Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo) have titles this self-explanatory.