Summer again risks fast playoffs

Exhib'n terms in flux with more super-saturated releases due

HOLLYWOOD — Get ready for the sequel to last summer’s “one-week wonder” box office phenom — and this time, it’s personal for exhibs.

Theater operators felt burned last year when distribs lined up tentpoles from May through August, unspooling even non-event pics on historically wide numbers of screens.

That “super-saturation” distribution strategy assured studios big opening grosses, but exhibs lost out because their richest B.O. splits didn’t kick in until much later into a film’s run.

Summer 2002’s release sked is similarly chockablock with major studio releases, so second-week drops are all but guaranteed again.

And that’s likely to force tinkering with traditional film-rental terms:

  • In the past, exhibs often have gotten splits of roughly 30%, 40% and 50%, respectively, over the first three weeks of a film; that could change to a 30-50-60 formula in many cases.

  • The skimpiest first-week exhib split of the past — about 20%, on the biggest blockbusters — largely will be abandoned.

  • Exhibs often will get a set, or “aggregate,” percentage of B.O. in all weeks of a film run.

For instance, instead of accepting the usual 20-40-50 formula for a tentpole release, operators now will be granted, say, 40% of B.O. over all the weeks a pic plays in their theater. AMC Entertainment has been particularly bullish on aggregate splits.

Some suggest Philip Anschutz’s recently assembled 5,900-screen Regal Entertainment boasts such unprecedented mass that the Knoxville, Tenn.-based exhib might wrest even more dramatic changes in film rental terms.

But most predict Regal’s muscle will prove useful only in the most difficult of clinches with distribs.

Among distribs, those setting exhib rental terms upfront are most challenged this summer by the lingering question of one-week wonders.

Such “firm-terms” studios include DreamWorks, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Universal, Warner Bros. and New Line.

The other studios — Disney, MGM, Miramax and Paramount — still follow a more traditional practice of negotiating rental terms at the conclusion of each film’s run.

So even last summer, those four distribs had to acknowledge big second-week drops in film rental negotiations with exhibs.

Meanwhile, there’s little consensus even among firm-term distribs on how much flexibility exhibs deserve.

One studio exec stresses theater operators derive the same income from concession sales as always, even though summer box office now is so front-loaded.

At the heart of the big summer dropoffs has been the advent of a “super-saturation” approach to film distribution.

For the first time, nearly all tentpole pics unspooled on 3,000-plus screens, a jump of roughly 30% over the widest releases of previous summers, thanks to newly available megaplexes throughout America.

This super-sat approach to film distribution has suddenly taken hold so thoroughly that even Paramount’s recent Mel Gibson starrer “We Were Soldiers” bowed on a whopping 3,143 screens, an unprecedented number for the March 1 release of an adult-skewing drama.

With so many screens letting so many moviegoers catch a pic on its first weekend, it’s only natural that audience burnout is reached more quickly. And this summer, like last, auds will have a new wide release or four to occupy their attention.

“We’re going to have probably the biggest summer we’ve ever seen as an industry,” predicts David Tuckerman, distrib prexy at New Line, whose “Austin Powers 3” unspools July 26.

“We can say now who will be No. 1 on most weekends this summer,” says Fox distrib topper Bruce Snyder, “but then on each following weekend there’s another monster movie right behind it.”

Small wonder: An amazing 47 wide releases are set to open between Memorial Day and Labor Day, though some will get bounced from summer release skeds eventually. The total compares to 37 wide openers over the same period of last year and 36 during the previous summer.

“Whenever there’s a volume of films coming into the marketplace like that, your second week is going to be competing with two or three new openings,” Par distrib boss Wayne Lewellen observes.

Actually, six wide releases are set for the July 12 weekend and five over the Aug. 23 frame. So, how will this crush of titles affect the chances of any one pic to break out big?

“A good film will draw its audience regardless of its release weekend,” Laguna Research Partners analyst Kevin Skislock says. Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a good deal of carnage.

But Sony alone appears likely to contribute at least $600 million in seasonal B.O. from four of its biggest summer openers.

Distrib’s “Spider-Man” (May 3) and “Men in Black 2” (July 3) are considered $200 million domestic sure things, and its “Mr. Deeds” (June 28) and “Stuart Little 2” (July 19) seem certain to reach $100 million.

Industrywide, observers are betting summer ’02 will easily outpace last summer’s record $2.96 million in Memorial Day-through-Labor Day grosses. (1999’s 550 million in summer admissions still stands as the seasonal record for movie ticket sales.)

“As deep as last summer was, this summer looks even deeper,” observes Tom Borys, prexy at B.O. tracker ACNielsen EDI.

But he notes summer 2001 boasted unusually strong grosses in late July and early August.

“That’s where the test will be this year,” Borys says.

Big titles skedded for that period include “Austin Powers 3,” Mel Gibson starrer “Down and Under” and Sony/Revolution Studios’ Vin Diesel-toplined “XXX.”

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