There are many moviegoers heading to see Zoolander 2 this weekend that don’t even remember if and when they saw the first Zoolander. Considering the first movie came out almost 15 years ago that’s not too surprising. Once you realize that Justin Bieber, who cameos in the film, was only 7-years-old at the time it makes you realize just how long a gap there’s been between the two pictures. There is a whole other audience, however, who simply missed out because something much more important happened just 17 days before its release; the September 11th terrorist attacks. But, before we get into how that century defining tragedy could even tangentially tie into a silly Hollywood movie release, some backstory first.
One of the reasons I became a film journalist is because I actually started out working at the studio level. In 2001 that meant I was toiling in Internet marketing for Paramount Pictures. Sadly, Zoolander was not my day to day responsibility as I was often preoccupied with the most stupidly time consuming marketing campaign ever for a mostly forgotten Tom Cruise flick called Vanilla Sky (and already vowing never to work on one of his films again). But, I digress. The modestly budgeted Zoolander was a movie that was a top priority for everyone at the studio for a number of reasons.
It’s star and director, Ben Stiller, was coming off the monster hit Meet the Parents and while The Cable Guy certainly wasn’t a box office success many in the industry thought it demonstrated what a great talent he was behind the camera. In fact, years later, you could enter a random Hollywood house party and in some corner of the room there would be somebody making excuses about why Cable Guy wasn’t a hit. “The movie was two years too early” or “the marketing campaign wasn’t right.” At the time, Stiller had so much goodwill in town he was rarely the fall guy for any of his misses.
More importantly, behind the scenes the main producer on Zoolander was Scott Rudin. At that time in Paramount’s history no one had more power on the lot outside the heads of the studio, Jonathan Dolgen and Sherry Lansing. As you may have heard, Rudin was often a monster to everyone he dealt with because, frankly, he could be. If Disney had Jerry Bruckheimer and Warner Bros. had Joel Silver, the Melrose mainstay had Rudin to thank for most of its hits. They might not have always been as lucrative as those prolific action producers’ work, but even the commercial hits had some degree of critical appreciation. Having recently shepherded a number of films that fit that mold, Sleepy Hollow, South Park, Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Shaft and Rules of Engagement (directed by Lansing’s husband William Friedkin and you can imagine how fun that was to work on), Rudin was almost at the height of his influence at the studio (it would peak two years later when he produced School of Rock for a company desperate for a hit of any kind). And if it was a Rudin movie it meant a ton of integrated marketing that was akin to a political campaign. Happily, Zoolander was the perfect movie for Rudin’s relentless publicity wars because Stiller and his crew were always up for creating something original to help open the movie.
Just as with the currently lauded Zoolander 2 campaign there were fake photo shoots and print ads. There were all sorts of integrated interviews and events. Even in those days before social media made it impossible to escape anything it seemed like Derek Zoolander was almost everywhere. And as the film’s release date neared early tracking seemed to indicate it was working. An opening over $20 million or higher was on the horizon which would have been a great start for the $28 million budgeted comedy. Throw in the fact the movie tested so well there were many people at the studio that thought it could be a $100 million comedy or come close to it. Why couldn’t Derek Zoolander be Paramount’s answer to Austin Powers?
Many people’s lives are defined as before 9/11 and after 9/11. As someone working in the movie business in Los Angeles at the time my memories are clouded with the horror of what had happened and seemingly wanting to focus on the mundane tasks of work. Paramount had a movie set for release that weekend – the Keanu Reeves baseball drama Hardball – and there was significant discussion as to whether any movies would or even should open in theaters that weekend. Would people want to escape for a few hours or was it disrespectful in light of the events only a few days before? The industry collectively decided the show must go on and both Hardball and the Sony thriller The Glass House opened in theaters. The following week only one movie released wide, the notorious Glitter with Mariah Carey and that was in only 1,200 or so theaters. Honestly, I can’t remember if Hearts of Atlantis was supposed to open that particular weekend and got pushed, but there were no real wide releases until Zoolander, 20th Century Fox’s Don’t Say A Word and Heart debuted on September 28th.
It should be noted there were internal discussions about moving Zoolander to a later date (Warner Bros. moved the Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller Collateral Damage off its Oct. 5 date), but the studio was always slightly frugal. Pulling TV spots would have seriously increased the marketing budget and money had already been spent to digitally remove the World Trade Center from the picture. Also, Zoolander was the first true comedy to open after the attacks. Didn’t America need a moment to just distract themselves from the new world order? The eventual blockbuster success of Monsters, Inc., Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the King eventually proved that theory was right. Zoolander just wasn’t one of those movies.
Not only was Stiller’s latest expected to open to over $20 million, but some tracking services and rival studios had Don’t Say a Word debuting close to $25 million. Neither outcome came to pass. Zoolander earned just $15.6 million and Word took in $17 million. That may not seem like much of a difference but the analytics used by professional tracking services such as NRG (the most prominent player at the time) are often remarkable. There were many times Paramount executives would be furious at NRG when a movie opened to just a million less than what they had projected.
It’s a testament to Stiller’s creativity that the original Zoolander eventually ended up with $45 million in the U.S. as moviegoers slowly began to return to their local multiplex (it’s worth noting things began to turn around at the box office when Training Day took in $22 million the following weekend). From a business perspective Zoolander eventually became something of a cult film and a strong legacy title for the studio on home video and DVD. That being said, a sequel seemed something like a pipe dream.
When asked Stiller would often talk about a second go around for Derek and Hansel, but he’d always allude to issues with screenplay. His Thunder co-writer Justin Theroux was brought on to write and direct, but then Stiller found himself back in the director’s chair. Still, after the success of Anchorman 2 Paramount found itself in a nostalgic mood and greenlit the sequel. Was that a mistake?
Critics haven’t been kind to the long awaited sequel (at time of publication it has just a 36 out of 100 score on Metacritic and a 35% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and, worse, tracking isn’t very good either. Over a four-day holiday weekend Zoolander 2 is expected to come in third behind Deadpool and How To Be Single with a $20 million opening and at that might be slightly optimistic at this point. Paramount clearly underestimated the appeal of the competition and has almost painfully set Stiller’s $50 million budgeted sequel up for failure.
It just makes you wonder: perhaps this was one comedy franchise that was simply never meant to be?