This summer’s plethora of films may be a moviegoer’s dream, but it’s a nightmare for the distributors who are elbowing one another for screen time.
This year there’s extra pressure on those distributors from theater owners, who reportedly are threatening to pull movies that don’t perform well in their opening weekends.
In this summer of so many high-profile pictures (“The Flintstones,” “Maverick,” “Wyatt Earp” and “True Lies” to name a few) that could mean early death and financial disaster for some big-budget studio films. And it could especially hurt the smaller, independent films that aren’t backed by studio marketing campaigns and rely heavily on building word of mouth.
One reason the studios are especially worried about their films being pulled early is the recent box-office drought. “Look what we’re coming out of,” notes Jerry Rich, MGM marketing president. “Last weekend (May 6-8) was one of the worst we’ve had since October ’92. The market has been so soft for the last six weeks that (the studios) have got to play catch-up this summer. And that’s why people are worried about this.”
The worry, suggests Rich, who used to work for Miramax Films, is even greater for independents who “are really in a difficult position because they don’t have the leverage the studios have. They can’t say, ‘Look, you better give this picture a chance or you may not be showing the next big picture we have coming out.’ ”
The seven-week crunch period from Memorial Day (May 30) to July 17 is a matter of survival of the fittest.
Travis Reid, senior vice president and head film buyer for Sony Theaters (formerly Loews Theaters), concedes: “Every film is entitled to a second-week run. But when it doesn’t perform, there is this kind of rule of thumb that a picture gets pulled. I discourage theater owners from pulling a picture after the first week.”
Yet, quite simply: If a picture fails to open, theater owners will show no mercy.
“Nobody is happy about it,” says Barry Reardon, head of Warner Bros. distribution. “You better hope you have a really great picture that will survive because there’s little time (for audience interest) to build. The only hope is to push the release date back to say August (a less competitive window) if the film needs some momentum to build on word of mouth.
“But even when you have a big film like we had last year with ‘The Fugitive,’ you don’t want to be all jammed up in a crunch period like this.”
The release on that picture was pushed back to August because it hadn’t finished production, he says. Despite its late summer opening, the picture went on to gross a whopping $184 million domestically.
But even then, Reardon noted that AMC Century City theaters had overbooked space last summer, forcing Warners to move the picture’s opening to Century City Cineplex theaters.
Several studio distribution heads say overbooking of screen space is common during peak periods such as summer or the Christmas holiday season. But this year the competition seems tougher.
In the peak summer playing time, a number of movies will be competing for the same audience. Bumped against each other, for instance, are the John Hughes-produced “Baby’s Day Out” and Disney’s big summer picture “The Lion King.”
Although “The Lion King” will actually be in its second week of release, “Baby’s Day Out,” directed by “Home Alone’s” Chris Columbus could suffer in the crunch, studio sources fear. Twelve children’s movies alone are competing for this summer’s audience.
John Krier, president of the box-office tracking company Exhibitor Relations, noted that the crunch period is very telling about how relationships between studios and exhibitors really come into play.
“An exhibitor may want to pull a studio’s picture, but if he wants to get his hands on that studio’s next picture, he may be strongly persuaded to give (the weaker performing) film a little more running time,” he suggested. “Otherwise, (the exhibitor) may be the one to come up short in the long run.”