Summer rush reflects studios' schizo skeds

Disney’s “Pearl Harbor” enjoyed a rare privilege on Memorial Day weekend — it was the only opener on the schedule.

In June, however, the marketplace is getting more crowded. This weekend features the Battle of the Colons, with “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” facing “Atlantis: The Lost Empire.” The following frame pits “Dr. Dolittle 2″ against “The Fast and the Furious,” and June 29 will see four wide releases jockey for pre-holiday coin.

This flurry of action during Hollywood’s peak season raises a crucial question that has bedeviled studios for decades: What is the magic number of annual releases? Or, more explicitly, what is the ideal number at which a company maximizes its revenue potential yet also embellishes the value of its library?

The question resurfaced last week when DreamWorks brought on board ex-New Liner Michael De Luca as production prexy. He is expected to help DreamWorks goose its output from this year’s meager six theatrical releases to a steady flow of eight to 12 titles a year.

MGM has long trumpeted its “ambitious” ramping up to a near-major level, and its 13 planned pics for 2001 indeed rep a fairly solid increase over the nine it put out last year.

On the big board, Warner Bros. and Sony are boosting their output to nearly 30 apiece, while Disney has dropped its output considerably over the last few years.

Universal, Fox and Paramount typically remain in the 10-15 range.

In this clone-happy, homogenous corporate era, how do they all wind up with such starkly different strategies?

“Studios are run by individuals and groups of individuals and they’re going to have different approaches,” said Tom Staggs, Disney’s chief financial officer.

“Every parent company has a strategy, and the strategy at Sony is to have a strong volume from different sources,” said Sony marketing and distribution chief Jeff Blake. “Sony has a heavy volume of pictures but divides up the production and marketing responsibilities among various units.”

Staggs added that while more MBAs are prowling studio hallways, financial management of film output remains a simple matter of showing a profit. “The issues are not any different than when Louis B. Mayer was starting out,” he pointed out.

Finance gurus like Staggs have their say about slate size, as do producers and top execs. Some release decisions are no-brainers, due to contractual duty to run certain ancillary-oriented pics in theaters. But in most cases, it is the upper echelon — Michael Eisner, Rupert Murdoch, et al. — running the numbers game.

A company like Warner Bros. has always focused on market share. Back in the days of Bob Daly and Terry Semel, the studio boasted about its consistent No. 1 or No. 2 finishes in the B.O. derby.

Content-crazed

Then, as now, the company had its output deals in place (the HBO division was a key contributor) and was determined to come up with a mix of studio-created films and pickups to feed its distribution machine. Time Warner’s marriage to content-crazed AOL has spurred a resurgence of that philosophy.

Disney, meanwhile, seemed to subscribe to the same dictum under Joe Roth, but lately has given mixed signals. This year, the top spot in market share may elude the Mouse House for the first time since 1997.

Eisner has complained about the high cost of the Mouse House slate, advocating a blend of occasional tentpoles buttressed by midrange fare. Accordingly, overall Disney releases have been cut in half in the past five years, reaching only 16 this year.

Disney’s Miramax unit also has reined in its high-volume style. In the specialized arena, the company had long excelled by simply throwing a few dozen pics at the wall and seeing which ones stuck.

That major-like strategy turned the indie world upside down in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the prevailing wisdom was that art films needed careful nurturing and individualized attention.

Bumpy market

Erratic overseas grosses also have given many majors pause about pumping out excessive product.

Production strategy stems from ever-changing market conditions. Switches in the production regimes at Fox and Disney have also caused bumps in output; Paramount’s stable management has maintained a steady flow.

Any changes in the number of releases, studio vets point out, must be executed with the proper personnel in place.

Fox vice chairman Bob Harper said execs at the studio have certain economic expectations, but they try not to let the numbers exert undue influence.

“We never want to be in a situation where we feel like we are feeding the machine and therefore making decisions that we would not normally make,” he said.

“The decision to greenlight a picture is a big one. We never want to be living up to a number that feeds a machine because then you are not necessarily making the right decisions.”

The magic range?

But while Harper further suggests that there is no magic number, his former Fox colleague Tom Sherak, now a partner in Sony-based Revolution Studios, believes 18-22 films a year is a desirable range.

“That’s how many a good company can effectively release,” Sherak said. “Once you get higher than that, it gets a little cloudy.”

The bigger the slate, Sherak noted, the bigger the temptation for a studio to “dump” vulnerable releases and move on to the next title on the assembly line.

“Don’t forget,” Sherak said, “the same people who release the good ones also release the bad ones.”

(Carl DiOrio and Tim Swanson contributed to this report.)

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