Friday, January 20, 2012

Keep an Eye on the Calendar

Looks like it's not going to be the year of the fairy-tale themed films after all. It was announced yesterday that Bryan Singer's "Jack the Giant Killer" has been moved from June, 2012 to March, 2013. This comes on the heels of the news that Paramount pushed "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" back from March, 2012 all the way to January, 2013. That's not exactly a vote of confidence for either film. "Jack" supposedly needs more time for special effects, but it's more likely that the studio is wary of putting it out in the middle of a highly competitive summer season, and thinks that it will probably fare better with more breathing room in spring. "Hansel and Gretel," however, is clearly being dumped in the dead zone of January, which suggests the film is a stinker.

Before a single trailer is released, before a marketing campaign begins, or anyone gives an interview, you can usually predict a lot about a film's fortunes from its release date. The biggest moneymakers are released between May and July in the blockbuster season. Second stringers with smaller prospects pepper August, April, and March. More serious prestige pictures come after Labor Day, with a glut of them crammed into the last weeks of December. A few big crowd-pleasers are saved for the holidays, but watch out for stealth stinkers that get unloaded right afterwards. Currently we're in the middle of January, home to low-budget B-movies, wider rollouts for smaller awards contenders, and the leftover studio projects that nobody has much faith in or knows what to do with. How else to explain why Steven Soderbergh's critically praised, star-studded "Haywire," an action film starring newcomer Gina Carano, is being released now instead of as a blockbuster season primer, later in the spring? Or why George Lucas's period passion project "Red Tails" didn't come out in December, in time for awards consideration?

To be fair, there are some films that will pull in a certain audience no matter when they're scheduled, and the studios know that and act accordingly. Independent films are their own universe. Horror movies, low budget action movies, romantic comedies, and cheaper kids' films can come out in November or February without immediately raising eyebrows. After all, something has to play on President's Day weekend, and there's still a perfectly good chance to reap a profit from the less glamorous release dates. In recent years there have been a lot of solid hits that have come out of the traditionally slower winter months, most notably Disney's "Alice in Wonderland," which was released in early March and expected to fizzle quickly, but proceeded to gross over a billion dollars worldwide. Microbudget horror film "The Devil Inside," turned heads recently with an opening weekend of $33 million, the third highest ever for January. Sure, everybody hated it, but it proved there was an audience willing to come out to see that kind of film at that time of the year.

Studios are getting more open minded about scheduling, but that doesn't mean that the biggest, most anticipated films won't always stake out the Memorial Day and July 4th weekends, and that there isn't still a certain stigma attached to the last week of August. So watching where films end up on a studio's release slate, and how they get moved around can tell you a lot about the studio's confidence in a movie. "Wrath of the Titans" was briefly moved up from March 30th to March 23rd, putting it head-to-head with "The Hunger Games." After buzz for "Hunger Games" started to mount, "Titans" went back to March 30th. Now confidence and hype don't translate to quality, especially when you're talking about studio executives trying to maximize profits, but it does give you a good idea of the narrative that they're going to construct to promote and sell the film, and the probable marketing tactics to go along with it. And that's the closest proxy for quality you're ever going to get them to admit.

As we trudge through the quiet movie month of January, the studios have been busy, still finalizing the film calendar for 2012, and strategizing for 2013 and beyond. Most of their maneuvering draws little attention, because release dates are usually worked out years in advance for the bigger movies, and the ones that are released more quickly into theaters aren't on the average moviegoer's radar. But everything hinges on the opening weekend, and it's important to take notice when moves are announced. They might indicate a whole lot more than just the post-production running late.

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