Tight sked forces 'Fahrenheit' into scrambling for screens

To make “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore ambushed congressmen on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, staked out the Saudi embassy and snuck footage out of Iraq.

Now he faces a bigger challenge: getting prints into theaters.

The politically charged documentary now has U.S. distributors — Lions Gate and IFC Films — and a June 25 release date, but distribution plans must come together in record time and expectations are sky-high.

“We expect this to be the widest released and highest grossing documentary of all time,” said Lions Gate co-prexy Tom Ortenberg. “We’re going to shake up the world of distribution.”

Welcome to the post-“Passion” era of indie distribution.

Like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” “Fahrenheit 9/11″ was cast out of the studio system, kicked up a firestorm of controversy and now is coming back to disrupt Hollywood’s carefully laid summer distribution plans.

After weeks of negotiations between the Mouse House and Miramax principals Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the U.S. distribution plan was finalized June 1. That’s just 24 days before the June 25 release, which is a week earlier than the July 2 date Moore had previously announced.

Within minutes of winning distrib rights, Ortenberg said he planned to secure “somewhere close to 1,000 screens” for the pic, an unprecedented berth for a doc and a far more ambitious release pattern than most in the industry had expected — especially for a weekend when screens will be scarce.

“June 25 is probably the toughest date on the calendar,” says Bob Berney, head of “Passion” distrib Newmarket. “It’s like a perfect storm — all these big studio films are swirling around to form a roadblock.”

The sudden addition of “Fahrenheit” to the summer calendar is a monkeywrench in the sked, aggravating tense discussions between exhibs and studios hoping to protect the screens they were promised.

The pics most likely to be affected are the three other wide openings skedded for June 25: Sony’s “White Chicks,” U’s “Two Brothers” and New Line’s “The Notebook.” Also that weekend, megaplexes will still be playing holdovers “Shrek 2,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azbakan,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” to say nothing of the seven other pics opening wide on June 11 and June 18.

“The first thing to happen is that everyone at the studios starts calling the exhibitors and says, ‘It better not be on my screen,'” one distrib topper says.

Even in a landscape dotted by megaplexes sporting 20 or 30 screens, competing distribution heads say Lions Gate faces a daunting task in finding 1,000 screens.

“My guess is that they’ll have to start beating doors down,” says one distrib prexy. “It’s awfully late in the game.”

As difficult as getting the screens on June 25 will be, holding them the next week may be even more difficult because on June 30, Sony’s “Spider-Man 2,” the summer’s most anticipated tentpole, will unspool on a minimum of 3,700 screens.

Ultimately, exhibs make decisions on which films to play based on what they think will attract the biggest auds.

Ortenberg says, “I can tell by the number of calls from exhibitors that there is great anticipation for this film. Given the megaplexing of America, exhibitors have considerable flexibility. When there is money to be made, screens open up.”

He adds, “Whether it was ‘The Blair Witch Project’ several years back, ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ two years ago or ‘The Passion’ earlier this year, when there is a picture doing business, there will be screens available.”

Comparing “Fahrenheit” to “The Passion,” which by Memorial Day weekend had grossed about $370 million domestically, is extremely ambitious. (Ironically, Gibson’s Icon Prods. was originally set to finance the doc, but Moore claims Gibson gave in to Republican pressure to pull support.)

For the moment, exhib chains are waiting to see whether media hype shows signs of generating an aud.

“We intend to program the movie,” says Regal Entertainment senior VP Dick Westerling, although, he adds, “We need to screen the film and work through the normal booking process with Lions Gate.”

Similarly, AMC senior VP Rick King says, “We try to play all the films we can and we always try to program to how films perform in the marketplace. At the first of the month, it’s just too hard to say where we’ll be at.”

If exhibs conclude one screen of “Fahrenheit” would have a bigger draw than the sixth screen of “Spider-Man,” Sony could lose those screens.

Shortly after “Fahrenheit” finalized distribution, Sony instructed its distrib department to lock up every multiple-screen commitment it had for its pic.

“There are no changes in our plans,” says Sony vice chair Jeff Blake.

Ultimately, Newmarket’s Berney predicts “Fahrenheit” will meet its screen target.

“It’s hard, but I think this film is like ‘The Passion’ in that you don’t need anything to build more buzz around it.”

Seeking screens, however, is just one part of the challenge; in the shortest span ever between acquisition and release, Lions Gate and IFC also will have to print up trailers, send them to theaters and plan a TV and print advertising campaign — steps that studios usually have months to complete.

Some of that work had begun before Lions Gate and IFC entered the picture. While Miramax has told its staff not to participate in the marketing of the pic, a trailer and TV spots had been cut before the distrib deal was struck.

That day, “Fahrenheit” trailers were ordered and they reached theaters three days later, on June 3. Ortenberg says TV spots will begin airing late this week and theaters should have doc’s one-sheets by June 11.

“There is a certain point where we wouldn’t have had enough time,” Ortenberg says. “But the 3½ weeks is enough.”

As with “The Passion,” the effort will be aided by the torrent of media coverage “Fahrenheit” has received, including winning the top prize at Cannes. Though the pic isn’t yet included in tracking research, public awareness should be high. With Moore and the Weinsteins announcing their intention of a July 2 release, exhibs had been anticipating the pic.

Indeed, even while negotiations for U.S. rights were under way, shadow negotiations took place between distribs competing for the pic and theaters, asking about the hypothetical availability of screens.

To meet his ambitious distrib goals, Ortenberg has Moore and Tupac Shakur to beat.

“Tupac: Resurrection” bowed on 801 screens last November, eventually grossing $7.7 million. The biggest grosser is Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” which took in $22 million, but United Artists used a platform release, starting it on eight screens. Primarily playing arthouses, its widest point was 248 locations, and during its 49-week run, its highest weekly gross was $2.3 million.

The ambitions for “Fahrenheit” are even higher. While securing specialty screens will be considerably easier than commercial ones, Ortenberg says Lions Gate still is determining the right mix.

“We want to be careful not to book the film exclusively in commercial theaters and alienate the arthouse crowd,” he says. “And we don’t want to book the film in just arthouses and send the message that the film isn’t meant for a wider audience, because it is.”

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