Long Distance Box Office: American Reunion


It’s been a little while since we’ve done one of these–and we do hope to bring “The Career Analyst” back one of these days, too–but we’re back with another look at a movie not opening for a couple months, this one being Universal Studios’ attempt to resurrect one of their popular comedy franchises with American Reunion. It’s opening on April 6, Easter weekend when many people will be off from school and work either on Good Friday or Monday or both, and they hope that opening before what’s going to be a busy summer will help them bring in some profits during the normally slower spring month.

It’s been eight years or more since we’ve seen the original kids from American Pie, an R-rated coming-of-age comedy that introduced Hollywood to a lot of new talent back in 1999, including directors Paul and Chris Weitz, who have both gone onto bigger things. At the time, few people knew who Jason Biggs or Seann William Scott or Shannon Elizabeth or Chris Klein or Tara Reid, so it opened with a modest $18.7 million a week after the 4th of July 1999. Word got around pretty quickly that it was something different that harked back to the raunchier comedy for movies like Animal House and Porky’s (or the recent summer hit There’s Something About Mary), so by the end of that summer, the name Stifler and terms like “MILF” were on everybody’s lips as it became one of the summer’s sleeper hits, the raunchy sex humor helping to bring $101 million in business, which wasn’t bad since it reportedly cost $37 million including advertising.

Two years later, a good percentage of the cast returned for the sequel American Pie 2, which opened with $45 million in early August and grossed $145 million total (doubled that amount including worldwide), then two years after that, Biggs and Hannigan got married in American Wedding. That had a weak opening of $33.4 million and still ended up grossing $104 million, though oddly, it didn’t end up doing nearly as well internationally, adding on just another $22 million. Some can probably assume that the idea of the horny teenager from the first movie getting married probably couldn’t be nearly as funny.

If there’s one thing Universal does well, it’s franchises, as seen by the growing success of the “Fast and the Furious” and “Bourne” movies. The former was about to head the DVD – only route before they got Vin Diesel and Paul Walker back for Fast and Furious, which became the biggest opening in the series mainly because their return brought the fans back. Last year’s Fast Five opened even bigger. Even “The Mummy” franchise has been kept alive through a series of successful “Scorpion King” DVDs, and we expect that Universal will bring that back someday. Though it’s been over eight years since American Wedding, they’ve wisely kept the premise more or less alive via the straight-to-video “American Pie Presents” movies.

Like with Fast and Furious, the biggest sell for American Reunion is that all the original cast are back. It’s not like many of them have been very successful since the “American Pie” films, but fans of the first three movies will be excited to see them returning as their most popular characters. While we’re going to see the likes of Shannon Elizabeth, Tara Reid, Chris Klein, Mena Suvaria and Eddie Kaye Thomas returning for the first time since the 2001 sequel, most people will still be focused on the four from American Wedding, Jason Biggs, Alison Hannygan, Seann William Scott and Eugene Levy.

Scott has probably been the most active in terms of keeping a career going with his biggest hits being Old School (with Todd Phillips who took the R-rated comedy ball and ran with it), Role Models and The Dukes of Hazzard, as well as providing a voice of a lesser character in the “Ice Age” movies. After that, Alyson Hannigan has been the most visible due to the success of her television role on “How I Met Your Mother” while Biggs had less success with the short-lived CBS sitcom “Mad Love.” In fact, much of the rest cast had been in flop after another, particularly Tara Reid (My Boss’s Daughter, Alone in the Dark) and Shannon Elizabeth (Tomcats). Mena Suvari appeared in the Oscar-winning American Beauty the same year as the first American Pie, but then ended up doing flops like The Musketeer and other little-seen indies. Eugene Levy essentially stuck around to appear in many of the straight-to-DVD movies.

Unlike American Wedding, long enough time has passed to create a crucial nostalgia factor. Those who saw the original movie as teens or 20-somethings will remember what a big part those movies played in their younger days and they’ll now be in their late-20s or 30s, making them the perfect audience to watch these characters as adults. That said, nostalgia doesn’t always pay off. Recently, Wes Craven returned to the “Scream” franchise for the first movie in 11 years; that opened last April to a disappointing $18.7 million and didn’t even make the $40 million some (included us) expected it would make opening weekend. The question, as was the case with Scream 4, is whether anyone under 20 will give a sh*t about this franchise and whether enough of them had a chance to see it on cable or DVD in the time since their theatrical release for them to get on board.

The first teaser for American Reunion appeared in October, followed quickly by a trailer that helped viewers get caught up with what the characters had been up to, but also let them know that even though they’re older, they’re still getting up to the same sexual hijinks. What might not be that known is that this relaunch is written and directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, the filmmakers behind another less successful R-rated comedy franchise, the “Harold & Kumar” movies, who were admittedly influenced by the success of American Pie.

One thing possibly holding the movie back is the title, since not having “American Pie” in the title doesn’t make it so obvious to casual moviegoers staring at the marquee that American Reunion is in fact a sequel, though one can expect Universal’s marketing will make sure people are aware of that fact.

An even bigger obstacle is that it’s facing James Cameron’s 3D rerelease of Titanic, which may be a bigger nostalgic draw to women over a certain age, who’ll remember it fondly from 1997 when it became the highest-grossing film at the time. We know almost nothing about the other wide release The Cold Light of Day, a new Bruce Willis thriller, but we don’t think that it will have much of an impact on either of those.

While Titanic might keep American Reunion from doing huge numbers its first weekend, we think Thursday midnights and Friday should belong to American Reunion, allowing it to open with as much as $17 to 18 million on Friday itself and around $40 million or slightly higher over the Easter weekend. Whether the movie matches the $100 million base of the previous three movies will probably be determined by whether the movie is funny enough to get repeat business as well as word-of-mouth business from those not interested enough to rush out and see it.

Our next Long Distance Box Office piece probably won’t be until after Sundance, but next time, there’s a good chance we’ll start looking at some of the summer movies.