Universal Pictures brought its dueling volcano race with Fox 2000 to a boil on Friday by announcing a new Feb. 7 release date for the studio’s “Dante’s Peak.” The date switch moves the U pic’s release up by a full month, and it leapfrogs three weeks ahead of Fox’s competing project, “Volcano.”
The date was announced in an unusual manner – with full-page ads on Friday in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and USA Today that heralded the title and date in huge type.
Although Fox execs had known about U moving “Dante’s Peak” and were already strategizing about possible options, they did not expect the announcement so early. “Dante’s Peak” was scheduled for March 7.
The move by U puts Fox in a spot. Fox, which has “Volcano” slated for Feb. 28, is unable to push up its “Volcano” release any further because to do so would make the Mick Jackson-directed disaster pic bump heads with the studio’s much-hyped re-release of “Star Wars” on Jan. 31. Fox had previously moved “Star Wars” once (from President’s Day) and is now locked into the January date because of its massive, multimillion-dollar promotional campaign with Pepsico and Pepsi’s subsidiaries.
“It would be disastrous at this point,” one insider said. “They have all the promotional partners on board and (Pepsi’s) money is spent. They also have the exhibitors primed and ready with new sound systems and the like. They would also not do anything to upset the Lucas people.”
Part of the reason that Fox is making a major effort on the new release of the “Star Wars” trilogy is to win over George Lucas, so that he will make the next installment in the saga for Fox.
Fox will now likely move its release of “Volcano” to either May or August rather than get into a war of attrition with U at the nation’s theaters this February, sources said.
First out of the gate
If Fox releases “Volcano” in May, it could be one of the first pictures out of the gate for the summer, going head to head with Paramount’s “The Flood,” which is set for a May 16 release. But that would give it only a one-week window before Universal’s “Jurassic Park” sequel “The Lost World” debuts May 23. Fox could also move into August, which would allow more time between the two volcano pictures.
If “Volcano” moves into the summer, Fox will be releasing three big-budget action films within three months, with “Speed 2: Cruise Control” and “Alien Resurrection” slated for July and August, respectively.
“At this point, we’re staying on the date. There’s no rush for us to do anything right now,” Fox senior exec VP Tom Sherak said. “We’ll go out and market our movie. When you look at their tagline and ours, it shows that theirs is reality-based and ours is a disaster-event picture.”
The trailer for “Volcano” is already in theaters – running in front of “Star Trek: First Contact” when possible. The tagline: “This winter the Coast is toast. L.A. erupts in 1997.” The “Dante’s Peak” teaser trailer went out over the Thanksgiving weekend and will also be attached to the Sylvester Stallone actioner “Daylight,” which bows Friday. The tagline: “The most awesome sight you’ll ever see may be your last.”
For U, the date shift came after chairman of the MCA motion picture group Casey Silver saw a very early cut of the film. “Casey saw the film last week, and we found that we had the opportunity to move the date, so we made the decision,” U’s president of distribution Nikki Rocco said.
Asked about the early bow for such a mega-budgeted pic, Rocco noted, “Our business is a 12-month-a-year business. If you have a quality film, the audience will find it and embrace it.”
U plans to release Imagine Entertainment’s Jim Carrey comedy in March.
U’s thinking is not without precedent. Past years have seen both “The Silence of the Lambs” and “The Birdcage” bowing early in the year to great success.
The move by U, however, comes with a price. “Dante’s Peak” initially was budgeted at $104 million, then shaved down to around $100 million and given the greenlight (that price included Gale Anne Hurd’s $1 million producing fee). The budget grew when a scene was added that cost $2.5 million and Digital Domain came to the table for $8 million. “Dante’s Peak,” which stars Pierce Brosnan, wrapped principal photography with a pricetag of about $115 million, according to sources. With a ramped-up post-production schedule, U is expected to spend another $3 million to $5 million to finish its disaster pic.
Fox 2000 also has paid the price of a race with U. It greenlit its Tommy Lee Jones starrer “Volcano” with a budget around $70 million. The project had gone over budget substantially, but is still under the $100 million mark, insiders said. One source noted that Fox has been under the gun to meet its Feb. 28 date.
In what has become a game of chicken, Fox put out full-page trade ads touting its completion of principal photography on Oct. 17 when, in fact, it was still shooting green-screen scenes two weeks after the ad ran, insiders said. U followed with a press release in mid-November stating it had completed photography on Nov. 6.
Feb. 7 “seems like a great date for Universal’s movie,” Sherak said. “We knew they were talking about moving the date. We were waiting for them to play the next card.”
The battle isn’t over yet: Universal still has to meet its date. Completion of its special effects will come dangerously close to the Feb. 7 release.