Studios book dates years ahead for pricey pix

Better book now for 2004 and 2005 — that’s the new imperative for studios seeking release dates for tentpole projects.

Until a few years ago, openings were usually set no more than nine months in advance, but such decisions have been creeping further out. That trend, accelerated by the monumental importance of a film’s first 10 days of box office, presents a fresh set of headaches and challenges for Hollywood execs.

The familiar proclamation “coming soon!” no longer means what it once did. Indeed, the film biz is a long way from the days of picking dates with product already in the can.

Battered congloms desperate for predictable revenue find plenty of virtue in long lead times, but it isn’t an easy adjustment for studios accustomed to procrastination. The risks of advance planning include rivals swooping in to steal away market share; talent, directors and f/x houses balking at being yoked to a firm date; and a marketing vigor that outpaces audience appetites.

Forethought entered the foreground last summer when Sony declared that sequel “The Amazing Spider-Man” would arrive on the first weekend of May 2004. The rest of that summer has since filled up with half a dozen other tentpoles.

Three more major pics have landed in May ’04 — Fox’s “Tomorrow,” a Roland Emmerich-directed sci-fier on global warming, for May 28; Universal’s vampire pic “Van Helsing,” May 21; and Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible 3″ on Memorial Day.

Even 2005 is starting to percolate, with Fox staking out the weekend before Memorial Day for “Star Wars: Episode 3″ and Paramount eyeing June or July for “Indiana Jones 4.” Other titles being aimed at summer ’05 include Warner Bros.’ “The Three Stooges,” U’s “Jurassic Park IV” and Disney/Pixar’s “Cars.”

Former Fox topper Bill Mechanic sees the trend as reflecting the massive risks that accompany nine-figure tentpoles. “These films are so big now that studios feel they need squatter’s rights to the best dates,” he says.

The choicest slots are the first week in May, Memorial Day, the third week in June (when schools let out), the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Early date-grabbing reflects an array of studio needs:

  • Avoiding head-to-head collisions with other tentpoles.

    “If you have a movie that’s going to be strong and which other people will think is strong, you try to put them on the strongest piece of real estate you can,” says DreamWorks distrib topper Jim Tharp.

    Occasionally, of course, that strategy backfires. The biggest recent confrontation came on the first weekend of July 2001 between Warner Bros.’ “The Perfect Storm” and Sony’s “The Patriot,” which had a bigger star in Mel Gibson and far better tracking.

    “Storm” surprised “Patriot,” trouncing it in Friday-Sunday tallies, $41 million to $22 million. In the long run both pics fared well, “Storm” taking in $183 million domestically and “Patriot” $113 million.

    That epic clash may have encouraged studios to be more proactive, even though Sony settled on a date far before victorious Warners.

    “You announce early to keep away from a situation like that where you have two tentpoles going after the same audience,” one exec notes. “The audience expands if that happens, but the audience doesn’t double.”

  • Demonstrating to stars and directors the high degree of commitment to their project, while also putting pressure on directors and producers to get to work sooner rather than later.

  • Signing on as early as possible to massive and complex corporate marketing and tie-in campaigns.

    “These tentpole films require a lot of advance planning (with) promotional partners,” says Dan Fellman, distrib chief at Warner Bros., which has “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” set for June 2004. “So it’s part of the process to choose your date well in advance to give everybody associated with the film the opportunity to do the best job that they can.”

    Homevideo is another important ingredient. Steven Spielberg, who will direct and produce “Indiana Jones 4,” has said the theatrical date will likely be synchronized with the debut on DVD of the first three pics.

  • Dominating the opening weekend is increasingly essential. “Spider-Man’s” $114.8 million bow set a new standard for franchise titles, and a long-lead date can sometimes elevate run-of-the-mill fare to a cultural event.

    Part of the revolutionary effect of the first “Batman,” for example, was that it combined canny marketing with advance planning. Awareness could not have been higher by the time the movie opened.

PLANNING AHEAD
2004
Pic (Studio) Release date
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The Amazing
Spider-Man
(Sony)
May 7
Van Helsing (U) May 21
Tomorrow (Fox) May 28
Mission: Impossible 3 (Par) Memorial Day weekend
Harry Potter 3 (WB) June
Shrek 2 (DreamWorks) June 18
Sharkslayer (DreamWorks) Nov. 5
2005
Star Wars: Episode III (Fox) pre-Memorial Day weekend
Indiana Jones 4 (Par) June or July
The Three Stooges (WB) Summer
Jurassic Park IV (U) Summer
Cars (Disney/Pixar) Summer

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