New films crowd box office

Since the studios keep complaining about the glut of “product,” why are there more releases out there than at any time in a decade?

Could it be that Hollywood speaketh with a forked tongue?

Well, not exactly. The rivers of private equity money flowing into Hollywood have created a new breed of distribution labels that are flush (for now, at least) and have the ability to release a pic as widely as a major would.

The number of movies hitting theaters so far in 2007 has reached an all-time high (see chart). The schedule has gotten so packed that studio bosses are grousing ever more loudly than usual that there’s no such thing as a good weekend to roll out a pic.

“Six new wide movies in the marketplace is ridiculous,” gripes one studio exec. “There should be two or three. But there is indie stuff that’s finding its way into the marketplace with very little ad spending.”

Indies and studios are scrambling to release smaller pics before the flood of tentpoles and sequels begins in May at the start of the summer blockbuster season.

But the clutter of releases in April — normally the calm before the summer storm — is a reminder that the glut may turn into a year-round phenomenon, extending far beyond the usual summer and end-of-the-year saturations.

Six movies opened wide on the April 13-15 weekend. Studio pics included Fox’s “Pathfinder,” Paramount’s “Disturbia” and Sony’s “Perfect Stranger.” The rest of the wide rollouts were from indie labels, including stalwart Lionsgate with “Slow Burn,” First Look with “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” and Chicago Pictures, a virtual unknown, with “Redline.”

Meanwhile, Miramax’s “The Hoax” expanded its platform release with an eye toward going wide later in the month.

“What you are seeing is a liquidation of product prior to May 4 when a murderer’s row (of movies) starts,” says one studio distribution exec.

Another perturbed studio distribution head said he’s never seen so many new releases bowing over the mid-April frame before.

“There have been several weekends over the past few months that seem awfully crowded,” says one B.O. analyst. “But I don’t think that the ‘big’ distributors were expecting such wide releases of films like ‘Redline,’ from Chicago Films, and ‘Aqua Teen,’ from First Look.”

“The indie companies are saying, ‘If we don’t get (these movies) out now, there’s no way we’ll get screens, let alone hold screens,’ ” says one distrib. It doesn’t mean that all pictures cannibalize each other. So far this year, “Wild Hogs” and “300” managed to break through, and it remains to be seen if any of the indie pics will break out.

But the pics aren’t all going as widely as a tentpole would.

“Yes, it is crowded,” says a distribution exec with a pic in play over the weekend. “There is some pressure on getting screens right now, but these are not 2,500 and 3,000 screen breaks.”

Studios have long complained of the short, make-or-break weekend window. And last year, several studios like Disney signaled plans to scale back their slates.

But the problem for distribs appears to be getting worse, not better. Even exhibitors — who usually have no complaints about a greater variety of product — are concerned that the pics are at many times competing for too small a sliver of moviegoers.

“Six releases is a lot,” says John Fithian, the president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners. “And we have had several weekends so far this year with a release number higher than the norm.

“I understand why distributors would be concerned, as it is difficult to break through the marketing clutter, acquire the most appropriate screens and get a shot at the broadest possible audience base when there are so many releases. But for theaters, breadth of product typically produces great overall results.”

What he does worry about is not the quantity but the lack of diversity in the titles.

“Of the six movies going out this weekend, four are rated R,” Fithian notes. “Six movies in release would do better with a greater breadth of ratings.”

He notes that between 1995 and 2006, 46% of the movies released were rated R, yet those movies produced only 31% of the box office.

But this clash seems to make little difference to some of the distributors. “Redline,” which opened on 1,800 screens before expanding April 20 to 2,500 screens, comes from Los Angeles production and distribution banner Chicago Pictures, which is headed by Daniel Sadek, a real estate investor.

The movie, budgeted at about $25 million and starring Eddie Griffin, is one part action thriller and another part vanity license plate, using Sadek’s personal collection of rare, luxury cars as eye candy for gearheads.

To get the pic out, Sadek brought aboard former MGM distribution chief Larry Gleason. Sadek’s partner in Chicago is veteran producer Mario Kassar.

First Look, with “Aqua Teen,” recently installed Avi Lerner as co-CEO along with Henry Winterstern. Only weeks earlier, Winterstern was locked out of his office.

But despite the presence of the indie pics, Hollywood execs were skeptical such films would play significantly.

“I wouldn’t pay much attention to them,” says a studio vet dismissively. “There’ll never be a shortage of rich people who try their hand in the movie business. They can plan all they want to.”

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