It's a matter of timing

Times Staff Writer

Welcome to Hollywood's summer of sequels: Not the movies. The release dates.

Steven Spielberg's “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” comes out Memorial Day weekend, just like the previous sequels to "Raiders of the Lost Ark." That follows the customary launch of the summer popcorn movie season on the first weekend in May with a movie adapted from one of Marvel's comic book superheroes. Pixar has grabbed the same weekend in late June. Will Smith is back on the Fourth of July weekend. And prolific comedy producer Judd Apatow is opening an offbeat offering in August.

As movies become more costly to produce and market, the studios are increasingly relying on release dates that have worked for the same genre, star or filmmaker. When it comes to opening dates this summer, the thinking among studio executives is if it worked before, it should work again -- and again.

"There is so much uncertainty in this business to begin with," said Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures. "If you've already proven that audiences respond to a genre at a certain time of year, why not eliminate one of the variables?"

Paramount is wagering an estimated $335 million to make and release worldwide the fourth chapter of the iconic adventure series starring Harrison Ford. Consumer tracking points to a five-day opening of $150 million or more in the U.S. and Canada alone.

Paramount and Marvel Studios set the tone this summer when “Iron Man” followed the path of other comic book superheroes by ruling the box office on the first weekend of May, the traditional start of the summer movie season. Between "Spider-Man" and "X-Men," Marvel films have kicked off four of Hollywood's last seven summers.

With that kind of box-office success, studios see no reason to second-guess what to do with upcoming Marvel movies. Twentieth Century Fox has already snagged the first weekend of May in 2009 for "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and Paramount has locked in the same date in 2010 for "Iron Man 2." This summer, Universal is releasing “The Incredible Hulk,” starring Edward Norton, on June 13 -- a remake of 2003's "Hulk," which was released a week later.

And Disney-Pixar has the animated robot comedy “Wall-E” set for the last weekend of June -- the launch pad that turned the animated rodent comedy "Ratatouille" into an international success last year. The reason: Kids in the U.S. are out of school and the movie can be rolled out overseas to take advantage of local holidays, said Mark Zoradi, president of Disney's motion picture group.

Will Smith, who had a string of effects-driven Fourth of July weekend hits from 1996 to 2002, including "Independence Day" and the "Men in Black" movies, returns to that date this summer Sony Pictures' action-comedy about an alcoholic superhero.

"I have to admit, I pride myself on picking most of my dates, but when Will Smith looks at you and reminds you that he's had some success on July 4th and then asks, 'How about July 4th?' You kind of nod and say yes," said Jeff Blake, the studio's chairman of marketing and distribution.

The third weekend of August had long been thought of as a dumping ground for likely flops because it's considered the tail end of the summer season as young moviegoers head back to school. But R-rated escapist fare aimed at younger audiences, especially comedy, has changed that perception.

After the racy Judd Apatow-produced comedy "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" from Universal became a hit with legs on Aug. 19 in 2005, Sony picked that same weekend for Apatow's racier "Superbad" on Aug. 17 in 2007.

This wasn't lost on Paramount either, which picked Aug. 15 for what it hopes will be another late-summer hit with the off-color action-comedy "Tropic Thunder," starring Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Stiller as actors in a war movie who get caught up in real combat.

"For a young person at the end of summer, you want to have some fun and forget about going back to school," Moore said. "What better than a crazy comedy?"

Studios tweak the strategy, placing a film on a neighboring weekend to a past success -- instead of the exact one -- when the marketplace warrants it.

Sony has Apatow's comedy "Step Brothers," starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, at the end of July -- only a week earlier than 2006's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" from the same team. "Step Brothers" fits on July 25, Blake says, because its chief rival that weekend, Fox's "The X-Files: I Want to Believe,” will target a different crowd: science-fiction fans.

The same-weekend trend is most obvious during the busy summer months, but it also runs year-round.

Smith has laid claim to a second calendar slot -- mid-December -- thanks to the father-son drama "The Pursuit of Happyness" from 2006 and the zombie thriller "I Am Legend" from 2007. Sony will release his romantic drama "Seven Pounds" on Dec. 12.

At Christmas, Disney has "Bedtime Stories," a family-friendly adventure fantasy starring Adam Sandler. Two years ago that slot launched Fox's "Night at the Museum," another family-friendly adventure fantasy, starring Stiller.

Super Bowl weekend in late January or early February, like mid-August, had long been known as a dead zone. Then in January 1999, during Super Bowl XXXIII, females flocked to Miramax Films' "She's All That," a romantic comedy starring Freddie Prinze Jr. that opened to $16 million and a No. 1 ranking.

"All of a sudden people realized this was a good weekend for movies, especially for the audience that wasn't so interested in the football game," said Jennifer Gibgot, co-producer of the $8-million budget film that grossed $103 million worldwide.

Sony and its Screen Gems division has dominated the Super Bowl weekend during most of this decade, mainly with PG-13-rated horror-thrillers aimed at young females, such as "When a Stranger Calls" and "The Messengers." This year, 'tween girls helped Disney's 3-D "Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour" open to a record $31 million.

But, like the mutual fund prospectus says, past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Warner Bros., whose battle epic "300" opened with $71 million in early March 2007, started off another numerically titled film, "10,000 B.C.," on the same weekend this year -- only to see it do half as much business. Next March, the studio will come back on the same weekend with "Watchmen," another graphic novel adaptation from "300" director Zack Snyder.

Regardless of how it turns out, the same-weekend strategy usually gets studio executives and filmmakers on the same page from the start.

"While it's always about the movie itself," Blake said, "at least if there is a hit in recent memory you can convince everybody that you can duplicate the success."

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josh.friedman@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Same time next time

Studios rely more than ever today on launch dates that have proved lucrative for similar fare as a way to limit risk in a high-cost, hit-driven industry. Figures in millions of dollars:

Memorial Day: Indiana Jones

*--* Year Movie Opening weekend 2008 Indiana Jones and the $150+* -- Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 1989 Indiana Jones and the $29.4 -- Last Crusade 1984 Indiana Jones and the $25.3 -- Temple of Doom *--*

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Fourth of July: Will Smith

*--* Year Movie Opening weekend 2002 Men in Black II $52.1 1999 Wild Wild West $27.7 1997 Men in Black $51.1 1996 Independence Day $50.2 *--*

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Third weekend of August: Judd Apatow

*--* Year Movie Opening weekend 2007 Superbad $33.1 2005 The 40-Year-Old Virgin $21.4 *--*

*projected five-day total

Sources: Times research; Box Office Mojo

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Weekend Forecast

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," which opens today, could top $150 million in its first five days. These figures are The Times' predictions for Friday through Monday. Studios will release holiday-weekend estimates Monday and final results Tuesday.

*--* Rank Movie 4-day Through the Weeks prediction -- (studio) (millions) weekend 1 Indiana Jones and the $120.5 $164.0 1 -- Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- (Paramount) 2 The Chronicles of Narnia: 32.8 103.0 2 -- Prince Caspian -- (Disney) 3 Iron Man 24.2 257.0 4 -- (Paramount) 4 What Happens in Vegas 10.5 56.2 3 -- (20th Century Fox) 5 Speed Racer 5.2 37.6 3 -- (Warner Bros.) 6 Made of Honor 3.4 39.2 4 -- (Sony) 7 Baby Mama 3.3 52.2 5 -- (Universal) 8 Forgetting Sarah Marshall 2.2 58.9 6 -- (Universal) 10 The Forbidden Kingdom 1.1 52.0 6 -- (Lionsgate/Weinstein) *--*

Source: Times research

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