Year-end wide releases have longer legs

Muscle of end-of-year titles draws attention

October at the B.O. has felt more like December, with a 30% increase in the total releases over last year.

That flurry is a mere precursor to a pressure-packed year-end stretch that will see a clash between popcorn and awards bait — some of it combined in one megabudget package. Oh, and in case you’ve been on Mars: The Oscars are in February and the MPAA has banned screeners.

The dynamics of the B.O. are also different during this season. Unlike the one-weekend-wonder pattern of the summer, which this year saw a typical release swoon 50% in its second weekend, an average holiday wide release in 2002 collected just 18% of its total gross in its first frame.

That trajectory means distribs accustomed to splashing films into the marketplace and moving on will have to exercise some patience and ingenuity. Pics that open in mid-December will have to have a strategy for how to stay aloft in January.

In November and December, 24 wide releases are skedded, up from 22 last year.

More than the quantity, the muscle of end-of-year titles is drawing attention. Last year’s mainstream roster included “8-Mile” and a rash of sequels, among them “Harry Potter,” “Star Trek” and James Bond. Only “Lord of the Rings” emerged as a dual commercial and kudos threat.

This year will see the finales of “Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings,” but also hefty prestige titles like “Master and Commander,” “The Last Samurai” and “Cold Mountain.” As always, big bets will be placed on effects-driven all-ages fare, including “Cat in the Hat,” “Haunted Mansion” and “Peter Pan.”

The real estate occupied by those big studio titles will undoubtedly complicate life for littler films. Forget screeners, the real battle will be for screens. The title of Sony’s Jack Nicholson-Diane Keaton comedy says it all: “Something’s Got to Give.”

“You have to consider things you’ve never considered before” in order to “register on this competitive Richter scale,” says Jack Foley, distrib chief at Focus Features, which is handling “Sylvia” and “21 Grams,” plus the ongoing “Lost in Translation.”

Publicity and marketing becomes even more headache-inducing than usual. Everything from spot-TV ad time to talk-show slots to billboard space will be hotly contested.

“With the lack of screeners, the studios and their affiliates are going to ratchet up the spend, which will make it tougher,” says Tom Ortenberg, prexy of Lions Gate, which is juggling “Shattered Glass,” “The Cooler” and “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

The jockeying for dates ended months ago. Warner Bros. midbudget Halle Berry thriller “Gothika” is the only major title to switch spots of late, moving out of a pre-Halloween berth to Nov. 21.

With dates set, execution is everything.

“The movies are the thing,” Ortenberg says. “If you have a good movie and you do a good job marketing it, you’re going to have success. The public can smell out stinkers. It’s not a good season to try to put one over on people.”

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