Ever since Adam and Eve came upon a second tree in the Garden of Eden, mankind has been intrigued by counterprogramming. Sure, there's an appealing option right in front of us, but maybe the other one is a little better?
That stretches, in a rather different manner, all the way to the current moment and the upcoming box-office battle between "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2." In modern Hollywood, a place with more celebs but fewer snakes (with apologies to certain talent agencies) this takes the form of different movies. Contrasting movies. Movies that couldn't be more disparate if you froze one in liquid nitrogen and griddled the other one up in the Golden State Warriors' locker room.
That dynamic is unfolding this weekend with "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2," the much-anticipated DC comic book character collision and the slightly less anticipated return of Toula and her matrimonial woes.
Universal is bringing "Wedding," again penned by and starring Nia Vardalos, to more than 3,000 screens, directly taking on Zack Snyder and "BVS," on the assumption that there will be people stirred to the movies this weekend who want something besides special powers and religiously themed epic battles. Second weddings are supposed to be smaller, but the new "Greek" is opening up wider -- much wider -- than the first film, which began as a limited release. (The movie also once again didn't seem to go on a pre-wedding diet, but that's another matter.)
How much "Wedding" can scoop out a piece of "BVS'" business is one of the intriguing questions of the young moviegoing year. Plenty of women will of course turn out to see "BVS" too, and women form a key constituency for the Toula toga party. But it's not just gender on which "Wedding" is banking its hopes. "BVS" sports a grim tone. "Greek Wedding" is about as dark as your Grandma Rose's kitchen decor. There's reason to think some people will be more in the mood this spring weekend for the latter, or perhaps need a palate-cleanser after watching the former.
The psychological dynamics behind counterprogramming are simple. The frenzy created by a particular movie makes people want to head to a multiplex. But not everyone will have their cinema pleasure sensors stimulated by said movie (or get there early enough to find a seat), so another one is swapped in. It's a little like when that restaurant review gets you all jazzed for that new Michelin place in town, but do you really want to wait hours for a dish the size of a pea? So you go to Burger King instead.
Counterprogramming is a delicate dance. It happens on a weekend when there's enough business to go around -- but not too much business, because that draws a megalith that seeks to grab all of it. Counterprogramming basically says that one movie will not dominate, and there's room for a second, very different one to squeeze by. Which is why you tend to see it on weekends like this upcoming March one -- people have emerged from the winter doldrums and are going to the movies, but it isn't the suck-up-all-the-oxygen weekend of the early summer, either.
While it doesn't always work, studios have a track record of some success with counterprogramming.
Perhaps the most overt counterprogram showdown of the modern era -- or at least the one that most enjoyably made use of an Andrew W.K. song -- was this call to arms trailer for "The Expendables" on the weekend it encountered "Eat Pray Love."
"Gentlemen, while you've been at home, noob tubing total strangers, duct-taping 40s to your hands, you've been handing the keys to Hollywood, to teenage girls," the trailer begins. "Julia Roberts may be the final blow .... August 13th is our last chance. We take back what's ours."
"If this loses to 'Eat Pray Love,'" it warned, "you don't deserve to be a man."
As it happened, both releases were able to do decent midlevel business -- men could be men again as "Expendables" raked in $35 million, but the women didn't stop turning out either, as "Eat Pray" notched $23 million. By the time they had finished their runs, both movies had racked up solid totals, $103 million and $81 million, respectively.
One of the biggest hits of the modern era was itself counterprogrammed against, and rather successfully. When "The Dark Knight" opened in 2008, it faced competition in the form of "Mamma Mia." As it turned out, audiences abounded — "TDK" had a $158-million opening weekend, a record at the time. But "Mamma Mia" garnered a solid $28 million on its way to a spectacular $144-million total.
When it comes to superheroes, though, it's Superman that actually has a history of being countered the most. The first of the modern reprisals, 2006's "Superman Returns," faced a stalwart competitor in "The Devil Wears Prada" (no actor is counterprogrammed the way Meryl Streep is counterprogrammed). The latter more than held its own -- $28 million to $53 million -- and actually finished comparatively not that much below its larger, more be-caped counterpart ($125 million to $200 million).
And in 2013, Snyder's "Man of Steel" faced what seemed like a kamikaze mission -- "This is The End," the Seth Rogen joint that played to some of the same young-male and genre audiences as the blue-and-red. It didn't work out for Rogen & Co. that weekend -- "End" got trounced, $117 million to $21 million. But the jokey apocalypse tale benefited from the strong moviegoing weekends that followed and eventually topped out at $101 million.
Of course, we tend to hear more about the successes. There are plenty of counterprogramming cases that don't work out. Just look as the massive opening of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" in 2013 and the flicker of a counter that was Vince Vaughn's "Delivery Man" in 2013 (at an $8-million opening it basically took in about 5% of "Hunger Games'" opening-weekend figure).
As the box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian told my colleague Josh Rottenberg, "If one movie can be the rising tide that raises all ships, that's great. But the track record is a mixed bag. There have been plenty of winners, but some movies have gotten just decimated by the big newcomer in the mix."
If you have any doubts, just ask the people behind the illness drama "My Sister's Keeper." What, you don't know any of the people behind "My Sister's Keeper," or remember that it even existed? That's because "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" crushed it like a small rogue Decepticon the summer of 2009.
And business has grown harder since then. With so many streaming options -- studios might only think of the movie at the multiplex, but consumers don't -- all movies face new kinds of competition. "Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" isn't just trying to do an end run around Batman business; it's taking on Netflix and Amazon too.
So where does this all leave "Big Fat Greek Wedding 2"?
So far, the tracking is decent -- about $15 million, which won't cause any shudders in DC offices ("BVS" will almost certainly surpass $150 million). Still, it's a respectable opening for a modestly budgeted movie. And if there's one thing this franchise has proved is that it can ride some word of mouth and play for a while.
That said, the irony of the "Batman v Superman"-vs.-"Greek Wedding 2" showdown is that the first "Wedding" became a hit precisely by avoiding confrontations like this. When the Vardalos-Joel Zwick collaboration opened in April 2002, the movie rolled out slowly, slowly, slowly — so slowly that it began with just over 100 screens, not reaching 500 theaters until three months into its release. Then it held the line month after impossible month, staying at over 500 until the following February. When all was said and done, the film had garnered $241 mllion. It's the highest-grossing picture in history never to hit a weekend No 1.
Such inching moves are nearly impossible in 2016. But added riches are not. Just three months ago, "Star Wars" The Force Awakens," currently the biggest opener of all time, scored a $241-million opening weekend. "Sisters," a Tina Fey-Amy Poehler R-rated comedy, couldn't be more different. it appeared to get squashed that first December weekend, taking in just $13 million, barely a sand particle on BB-8's casing. But entering multiplexes with all those people jazzed about seeing a film proved wise, and "Sisters" climbed in the holiday days that followed, eventually finishing with a very solid $87 million.
And sometimes it's worth remembering that the goal isn't strictly money -- it's mindshare. With so much attention being given to the tentpole du jour, there's a feeling that people would rather talk about something else, anything else. So studios pick that time to open a movie that couldn't be more different.
One of the best examples of this came the last weekend of May back in 2011. That's when Warner Bros. released one of the most anticipated comedy sequels of all time in "The Hangover 2." The film did well, taking in $85 million on more than 3,600 screens that opening weekend. But another movie, a drama from the specialty division Fox Searchlight, opened in limited release and drew a disproportionate percentage of the chattering-class and review attention. That film? "The Tree of Life."