Is June 20 smart for ‘Guru’?

Times Staff Writer

When Mike Myers was working on “The Love Guru” early last year, the writer-actor-producer had any number of ideas of how his zany movie about a spiritual guide named Pitka might come together. One thing was crucial to his thinking, according to people familiar with the movie: “The Love Guru” should open June 20 -- what Myers considered an ideal date for releasing a summer comedy.

But by the time Paramount’s deal for Myers’ movie closed and the parties had agreed upon -- but not yet announced -- its June 20 launch, another significant comedy had already landed on the same date, aimed at the identical audience of older teens and young adults: Warner Bros.’ re-imagining of the ‘60s TV show “Get Smart.”

In almost every other circumstance, one of the two movies would change its opening day and run for safer ground rather than risk cannibalizing each other at the box office. But neither film ever budged, creating a showdown next weekend that distributors and marketers say is not only extremely unusual but also increasingly one-sided, in the direction of Steve Carell and “Get Smart,” according to most audience tracking surveys.

With more movies being released in recent years than before -- 590 studio and independent films opened last year, up from 459 just five years back -- picking the right date to hit theaters has become more than art or science: It’s almost as important as making the movie itself.

Nowhere is that decision more critical than during the extremely competitive summer months, when the idea of having a weekend to yourself -- unless you’re the latest “Indiana Jones” sequel or Will Smith’s upcoming “Hancock” -- is as distant a memory as $5 movie tickets.


Because so many summer movies are supported by a bombardment of promotions, licensed merchandise and fast-food tie-ins -- many of which are set in stone months, if not years, in advance -- it’s difficult for a studio to abandon a release date commitment once it’s been selected. If a date change becomes unavoidable, however, the media is likely to pounce on the news as proof of trouble with the film. So they are essentially stuck.

One of the reasons Paramount couldn’t move “The Love Guru” was a trifecta of promotional opportunities. First, Myers was able to appear in character in May 21’s concluding installment of “American Idol.” Second, he was hosting June 1’s “MTV Movie Awards.” Finally, the National Hockey League ran “Love Guru” spots -- the movie features a professional hockey player who is helped by Myers’ guru -- during the recently concluded Stanley Cup playoffs.

While “The Love Guru” versus “Get Smart” is by far the most prominent clash between summer movies geared to indistinguishable demographic and psychographic groups, it’s not the only such faceoff this season.

On Friday, Universal’s “The Incredible Hulk” will open opposite 20th Century Fox’s “The Happening.” “Hulk” is a PG-13 comic-book adaptation, while “The Happening” is an R-rated thriller from “Sixth Sense” director M. Night Shyamalan.

Audience tracking surveys show “Hulk” drumming up more interest with boys and men, while “The Happening” has a strong following among girls and women. But there is enough overlap of audience interest between the two films (particularly among teenage boys and young males) that some in Shyamalan’s camp pushed for, but failed to get, a new release date.

On July 11, two movies aimed directly at family audiences will spar: Eddie Murphy’s “Meet Dave” and Brendan Fraser’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Murphy’s space alien movie was originally set for May 30, but to escape the second weekend of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” Fox moved “Meet Dave” to July 11 as soon as Paramount’s “Tropic Thunder” was switched from July 11 to Aug. 15.

“Journey” carries the strong hook of playing in about 800 3-D theaters, but Murphy consistently delivers a massive African American turnout, meaning it will be a tough contest for either film to prevail -- especially when you consider that the new “Hellboy” movie also arrives on July 11.

While people close to Paramount and Myers offer slightly different stories about who wanted “The Love Guru’s” June 20 date and at what point it was chosen, the two sides do agree that ultimately there weren’t any better release date options.

One reason was because DreamWorks Animation, whose films Paramount distributes, has a window of exclusivity in Paramount’s release schedule. Consequently, Paramount wasn’t able to put “Love Guru” opposite or within one week of the DreamWorks Animation production “Kung Fu Panda” on June 6.

Paramount considered several other dates for “The Love Guru,” including June 27, where it would not only face Pixar’s “Wall-E” but also be less than a week ahead of Smith’s “Hancock,” which comes out July 2.

By taking “The Love Guru” to July 11, Paramount would expose Myers’ movie to “Meet Dave,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” and the second weekend of “Hancock.”

As last weekend proved, when both Jack Black in “Kung Fu Panda” and Adam Sandler in “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” opened strongly, it is possible for two movies with similar comic DNA to do very well opposite one another. Even though Sony’s “Zohan” trailed “Panda” by a mile at the box office ($38.5 million to $60.2 million), no one said Sandler’s movie tanked.

And because the $62-million “Love Guru” cost less than the $80-million “Get Smart,” Paramount says “Guru” doesn’t have to open in first to make a profit.

The question for now is what margin will separate the two films?

The results of similar films clashing can be lopsided. Four years ago, the first “Hellboy” opened opposite “Walking Tall,” and “Hellboy” creamed it, grossing $23.2 million to “Walking Tall’s” $15.5 million. Last March, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” premiered against “The Last Mimzy,” with “TMNT” grossing $24.3 million to “Mimzy’s” $10 million.

And then there are the cases where neither movie does well. In April 2007, “Grindhouse” came out the same weekend as “The Reaping,” with “Grindhouse” grossing $11.6 million and “The Reaping” $10 million. In November 2006, “Flushed Away” and “Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause” went toe-to-toe, with “Flushed Away” grossing $18.8 million and “Santa Clause” $19.5 million.

It looks almost certain that “Get Smart” will sell more opening-weekend tickets than “The Love Guru.” Market executives not affiliated with either studio say that “Get Smart” has been able to position itself as a broad action comedy, whereas “Guru” feels more like an “Austin Powers” retread.

In a better world, though, there would be an extra summer weekend for them to choose from.