Thursday, May 19, 2011

Wrangling Release Dates

While summer movie season is in full swing, I've been looking ahead to the fall and winter. There are a lot of titles coming up that I've been anticipating. However, when I started checking the usual webpages with all the listings for upcoming movies, I noticed some omissions. Yes, there were "The Muppets," the new "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," and Martin Scorsese's "Hugo Cabret," set to premiere with November and December dates. Missing, however, were the spy thriller "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," and Sundance favorite "Margin Call," and Roman Polanski's "God of Carnage," which are all expected to show up in the fourth quarter of 2011, but haven't actually gotten confirmed dates yet. "The Iron Lady" with Meryl Streep is already riling up some controversy, but it isn't on any of the upcoming release calendars either.

After watching the studios fight over release dates for potential blockbusters years in advance, and raising eyebrows whenever they pushed a big title back a few weeks or edged them forward, I completely forgot that this isn't normal for a lot of films. Indies don't get picked up until they play the big festivals and can be gauged for their potential appeal to mass audiences. But for bigger titles too, release dates aren't scheduled very far in advance. Last year, "The Tourist" was primed as a big December release, but Sony didn't announce this until last August. And sometimes we'll get an out-of-the-blue late addition like the 3D "Glee" concert film that's premiering this August, but we didn't hear about until the beginning of May.

It all comes down to how the studios expect a movie to perform. A summer tentpole like "Thor" is expected to draw a mass audience, and thus designed to be distributed simultaneously with all sorts of merchandising and related promotions. A set release date makes it easier to orchestrate the marketing campaigns, get the film into more theaters, and coordinate all the related products to hit shelves at the right time. This is why a few weeks or months delay can make such a big difference, and there's increased pressure on films slotted on especially desired weekends, like holidays, to make their release dates. The box office numbers for "Thor" probably would have been smaller if it had come out in March or September, or if Chris Hemsworth's mug weren't plastered all over 7-11 Big Gulp cups and Dr Pepper cans.

And then on the other end of the spectrum are the niche audience pictures, the indie and art house films that only get limited releases, which means they don't play simultaneously in most theaters, but get booked for a week or two in major cities at various times. Right now "Everything Must Go," the new Will Ferrell dramedy, is playing in Austin, Texas, but not in my neck of the woods. My art house theater just got "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," which is not playing in the next town over. Some of these limited releases will pass many markets by completely, only accessible months or years later on DVD. I'm still waiting on several titles from last year, mostly foreign films.

It's the films that fall between the two extremes that are often the most interesting. Sometimes a film that starts in limited release will slowly build steam through word-of-mouth and expand to more and more theaters, becoming a sleeper hit. In this case, a wide release might not be announced until a film has already been technically out in theaters for several weeks. Smaller studio-produced pictures and promising acquisitions may not get a set release date until the executives get a look at the finished product and decide how it's likely to play, and where it belongs on their schedules. This is probably what's going on with "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," which Universal Pictures signed on to distribute ages ago. If they like it, we'll see it primed for a December awards season push. If they don't, it might get dumped into January or later.

You can see the studios' confidence in certain projects just looking at how they're treated. The upcoming "War Horse," a historical drama, may seem to be of limited appeal, but it's a Steven Spielberg film, so it'll certainly attract some interest. It's had a spot marked out on film calendars since last October. Similarly last December, the Coen Brothers' "True Grit" had a wide release from the start, while other awards contenders had limited releases first, just in case they didn't play as well as their distributors were hoping. This can be an important bit of risk management, because sometimes they don't. Remember the Ryan Reynolds film, "Buried"? It was originally intended to have a wide release, but its poor performance in limited screenings caused Lionsgate to panic and pull the plug at the last minute.

So, at the moment the winter film slate looks a little empty compared to the summer, but I guarantee you that it won't by October. Titles like "Black Swan" and "The King's Speech" weren't on anybody's radar before they took the fall film festivals by storm, and quickly became Oscar frontrunners. Who knows what we're going to get this year? The suspense and the opportunity for surprises adds a whole other dimension to the season. And frankly, the system helps the quality of the films. Not being release date dependent means the films haven't been rushed to the screen. The studios see finished movies before they buy and schedule them. Wouldn't it be great if they could do that with the summer movies too, instead of making up the slates based solely on brand names and star power?

Yeah, yeah. I can dream.

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