So how do certain movies end up on certain weekends? There is an art and a science to the scheduling of approximately 150 wide-releases each year. This is the first in an occasional look at the scheduling of movies — part background enlightenment movies, part history, part explanation, and a dose of skepticism and critique.
This weekend is a perfect example of movie scheduling in North america. Three movies open on April 1 from three different studios representing three different genres and audience segments. Universal’s Hop (a comedy with a mix of animation and live action) goes after the kid and family audience, while adults are targeted by Summit’s sci-fi thriller Source Code and horror fans are the bulls-eye for newcomer FilmDistrict’s Insidious.
Launching a wide-release movie is an expensive proposition, usually around $50 million in marketing costs. With each new release, studio prestige is on the line, careers are at stake in front of and behind the camera, and most of all, studio marketing and distribution departments need to maximize the return on investment of a film that cost $50-150 million to produce (in most cases but sometime more, sometimes less). With all that in mind, the same studio does not release two movies against each other the same weekend, and even more important, each studio assiduously avoids releasing one genre against a similar genre from another studio.
It’s really quite simple at its core. Why launch a big action movie the same weekend as another studio’s big action movie? The same goes for animation, serious dramas, horror, or any genre one can name. Why, a studio executive would ask, would we be dumb enough to split the audience of a particular genre if we don’t have to? The executive might continue, it’s not like we are as dumb as the TV guys who routinely schedule similar shows against each other. Touché, Mr. Movie Executive. We’ll leave that for another column.
So how did Hop end up on April 1? First, its theme naturally places it near Easter. Since Easter is late this year, that puts the movie somewhere in April. Next, DreamWorks has had great success launching family films this time of year (How to train Your Dragon opened 3. 26. 2010 with $44 million and Monsters vs Aliens opened 3. 27. 2009 with $59 million), but that studio did not repeat this strategy, providing an opening for Universal. Next, this weekend two years ago was extremely lucky for Universal, which shocked everyone by opening Fast & Furious with $71 million on 4. 3. 2009. Don’t underestimate the power of precedent and patterns. And then there’s the upcoming Fox release of the animated Rio, as Mitch Salem notes in his Hop review.
The next element of movie scheduling is a game of chicken. If a studio wants a particular date, they can test the waters to see if a competitor will come after them. At one extreme, the studio can publicly announce a release date. Unless the movie is a slam dunk hit or sequel, this can be risky since another studio can place a bigger film on that date and force a public re-shuffling of the release strategy. More likely, a studio can send a trial balloon and see how “the town” reacts. Although studios cannot talk directly to each other about release dates (because of anti-trust law), they can float release plans to agents and even research companies that conduct tracking studies with consumers about interest in seeing upcoming movies. A complex information network about release schedules is thus created, and studios have large status boards in conference rooms to track what they hear or know about the competition. Movie titles are printed on small placards (think something larger than a 3 by 5 card), which can be moved from one part of the calendar on the wall to another. These release schedules can wrap around two or more walls of such a war room.
If a studio floats a given date for an action movie, they simply wait. Does another studio put a blockbuster action movie against it? A weaker action movie against it? If the studio likes its chances against a given movie, they can wait some more to see if the other studio blinks. And on it goes for 51 weeks of the year. Wait, 51 weekends? Remember that films are rarely released the week of New Year’s, which is a great week for continuing box office business of December hits but a lousy time to launch a new movie since it is so hard to reach people through television and other media.
So what have we learned? Movie release schedules are built on a little science (tracking audience behavior for similar weekends and similar films) a lot of art (mainly intangibles like instinct, creative assessment, and most of all guts). There are rules (the weekend of April 1 is a perfect example of carefully managed competition), but the joy comes when the rules are broken. Case in point, next weekend is a rare face-off between two movies in the same genre (in this case with Universal’s Your Highness versus Arthur from Warner Bros. ) We have the potential for what studios usually successfully avoid: a demolition derby that is fun to watch. Unless you work for either studio. Next week (probably Wednesday) we will look at how this rare face off came to be.