Movie release dates become hard to script

Times Staff Writers

Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos may run a movie studio, but these days they often feel more like traffic cops, making sure 20th Century Fox’s releases don’t crash into rival films at the multiplex.

To help them through the congestion, the movie chiefs pore over slick white boards in their offices cluttered with color-coded magnetic strips showing the titles of films set for release through 2010. Like chess players in a high-stakes game, they shift films around hoping to outmaneuver rivals.

With a glut of titles flooding the marketplace, all studio bosses fear that the surplus is impeding an already rugged road to profitability. Studios and independent distributors last year released a record 517 films -- an average of 10 a weekend, up 49% from a decade earlier -- and this year movies are coming at the same pace.

“This is one of the biggest issues facing Hollywood today,” said Rothman, noting that it’s just as crucial to pick the right release dates for movies as it is to select the right script and hire the right stars and filmmakers. “When you’re trying to cram too many movies into a finite number of release dates, it’s inevitable some will suffer.”

Although the industry has periodically grappled with an oversupply of movies, executives say the current abundance is particularly troubling because it comes as overall attendance and once-robust DVD sales have stagnated.


Adding to their costs, movie companies spend huge sums to globally promote and release their films -- as much as $150 million for some big event pictures.

“In order to break through the clutter, we all feel the pressure to spend more in marketing,” said Warner Bros. President Alan Horn.

The logjam has been fueled by billions of dollars of film financing that has poured into Hollywood over the last few years from private equity, hedge funds and other investors, arming studios with easy cash and creating a new crop of independent distributors.

In the last three years, companies such as Overture Films (backed by John Malone’s Liberty Media Corp.) and Summit Entertainment (bankrolled by Merrill Lynch & Co.) have entered the fray, along with Weinstein Co. and the revived Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.

As a result, movies that otherwise might never have gotten the green light are adding to the congestion, many critically acclaimed films are getting lost in the shuffle and releases targeting the same audience segments are cannibalizing one another.

Even with the recent shuttering of Time Warner Inc.'s specialty labels Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse and the folding of its New Line Cinema into Warner Bros., the newcomers are ramping up their annual slates. Overture and Summit each plan to release a dozen films a year.

Many top executives whine about the “excess of product,” but few have done much about it, at least so far. Only one studio, Walt Disney Co., has scaled back its release slate in a meaningful way, to 13 last year from 19 in 2006. A decade earlier, the Burbank studio released 25.

Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger confronted the issue at a recent investor conference in New York: “Too many movies are being released into the marketplace. They can’t all be good enough or marketed well enough to drive good returns.”

This week, Time Warner Chief Executive Jeffrey Bewkes addressed the glut in a meeting with Wall Street analysts. “We are basically going to be running, a year or so from now, at a title volume that is more like half what it was two years ago,” he said, adding that by doing so, “we believe we can move the profit up.”

Paramount executives expect to put out fewer movies because of the recent decision to scale back the Paramount Vantage art house label -- and because of the expected departure of its DreamWorks live-action unit, though those titles could go out through a rival distributor in a net wash.

Rarely is there a weekend when multiple movies aren’t vying for screens and in many cases the same audience, especially during such peak moviegoing seasons as summer, fall and winter holidays.

This summer, Disney’s much-anticipated sequel “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” got upstaged by two behemoths opening in proximity, “Iron Man” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

“There were these giant vacuum cleaners on either side of us, and it took significant amounts of business away for our movie,” said Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook.

Specialty distributors feel the pinch too. Not only are they spending more than ever on marketing -- a 44% jump last year to an average of $26 million per picture -- but in many cases their releases are getting booted off screens before being able to build word of mouth.

Fox Searchlight had high hopes for “Young at Heart,” a feel-good documentary about a chorus of rock-singing seniors, when it was released two months ago to gushing reviews. But when it didn’t immediately catch on, it got kicked out of Hollywood’s Arclight Cinemas after just three weeks.

“Normally, we can hold them six to eight weeks,” said Steve Gilula, who heads distribution at Fox Searchlight. “It’s a jungle out there. If your gross isn’t high enough, you’re gone.”

Two of the summer’s biggest star-driven comedies, Paramount Pictures’ “The Love Guru,” with Mike Myers, and Warner Bros.’ “Get Smart,” with Steve Carell, will open head-to-head June 20, much to the chagrin of the studios’ respective movie chiefs.

For months, Hollywood executives had figured that either Paramount or Warner would blink, shifting to another date.

“I’m not happy about it, and Alan’s not happy about it,” said Paramount Chairman Brad Grey, referring to Warner’s Horn. “But there was no place to go,” given that every weekend of the summer had multiple movies or a potential blockbuster on the schedule.

Horn concurred, saying, “There are more movies than I’d like to see.”

With both movies staying put, they appear destined to split the comedy audience on their first weekends: Consumer tracking surveys show similar levels of interest in the two PG-13-rated comedies.

Later in the summer, half a dozen comedies will vie for attention between Aug. 6 and Aug. 22, including producer Judd Apatow’s stoner romp “The Pineapple Express” and the female-skewing “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.”

Universal Pictures yanked its comedy “Wild Child,” starring Emma Roberts and Natasha Richardson, from its Aug. 15 release date so as not to bump up against the action farce “Tropic Thunder,” starring Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Stiller, and three other new films.

“It certainly is crowded, and we want to be more measured and prudent in making the right date selection,” said Universal Pictures Chairman Marc Shmuger. The studio has yet to pick a new date.

Last fall, there was a pileup of serious dramas on the weekend of Oct. 19, when 16 new releases jockeyed for position.

“We all kind of got swallowed up in the crowded market,” said producer Alan Ladd Jr., whose acclaimed crime film “Gone Baby Gone” didn’t get as hurt as some of the other adult dramas including “Rendition,” starring Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal, and “Things We Lost in the Fire,” with Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro.

The crowded market has forced studios to stake out key release dates for their big event movies far in advance to try to scare off heavyweight competition.

Warner already announced the release date for its seventh “Harry Potter” movie -- Thanksgiving weekend 2010 -- even before the sixth film hits theaters this November.

Picking the right release strategy is treacherous in an era when movies have a quick burn rate. Films typically generate nearly a third of their domestic ticket sales in the first three days of release.

Fox’s Rothman and Gianopulos spent a long lunch earlier this year debating when to open “What Happens in Vegas,” starring Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz. They chose May 9, thinking their romantic comedy largely aimed at couples in their 20s stood apart from Warner’s younger-skewing “Speed Racer.” The move paid off, with a $20-million debut and a global gross so far of $170 million.