Studios making blind dates

Calendar crowded with movies without scripts

The big news in distribution circles is that Paramount has set opening dates for “Transformers 3” and for “The Avengers,” its pic with Marvel.

All the studios are increasingly getting the jump on the competition by claiming dates earlier and earlier for their big event titles. But the Par duo are interesting because they signify a new trend: Staking out dates before the deals have even been signed.

“Transformers” and “Avengers” will open July 1 and May 4 — those are respectively in 2011 and 2012.

Sony prexy of worldwide marketing Rory Bruer acknowledges that the stakes are high and the competition fierce, which explains the eagerness to announce dates. “But you have to weigh the risks,” he says. “Is it worse if I don’t take that date, or is it worse if I put it on this date and then the movie isn’t ready?”

When studios plant a stake in summer, it’s not just in North American soil. Virtually every summer actioner is released day-and-date around the world. That’s not necessarily true with animated pics, which key their opening dates to school holidays that vary around the globe.

Animated pics have often targeted an opening date three years in advance, because of their extra-long production cycle.

And since the 1970s boom in summer blockbusters — “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” etc. — the practice has been around, but on a much more modest scale.

With the socko B.O. results for such titan franchises as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Spider-Man,” dating a movie early has become mandatory practice for live-action pics.

Now there are so many, they run the risk of tripping over each other. With a glut of event movies, studios can’t rely on long runs, so they have become more dependent upon huge opening weekends. (Tentpoles can see drops of more than 60% in their sophomore sesh as they go up against the next title.)

That can sometimes mean a faceoff between tentpoles. This summer, Warner Bros.’ “Terminator Salvation” opens the day before Fox’s “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.” In a worst-case scenario, the two could cannibalize each other.

But both studios are hoping the pics will appeal to different demos. Last summer a lot of execs and members of the media wondered whether WB’s “Speed Racer” would eat into the second week of Par’s “Iron Man,” but “Speed Racer” sputtered out of the starting gate.

Other past battles of the behemoths turned out to be similarly one-sided battles: “Jurassic Park” vs. “Last Action Hero,” and “The Perfect Storm” vs. “The Patriot.”

Clearly, there are perils in dating a film too early. Sequels and three-quels are the easiest to date so far in advance, because a sequel is a brand, for which it’s easier to map out a huge marketing plan.

Some critics lament Hollywood’s tendency toward these next chapters, but the money points up the efficiency of franchises: Paced by the $1 billion for Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight,” half of 2008’s top 10 grossers were sequels.

That’s a good reason why the next three summers have sequels in common, even if the season has seen a more diverse array of pics in recent years than action movies targeted at young males.

Summer 2009 kicks off May 1, when 20th Century Fox bows “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Paramount opens “Star Trek” the following week, while Sony goes out with “Angels and Demons” (a sequel to “The Da Vinci Code”) on May 15.

WB and Sony open “Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins” on May 21, while Fox releases family sequel “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” on May 22.

Paramount’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” bows June 24, followed by Fox’s “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” (July 1) and Warners’ “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” (July 17). Warners opens “Final Destination: Death Trip” on Aug. 14, while the Weinstein Co. unspools “Halloween 2” on Aug. 28.

Those films will be competing with new event offerings such as Disney and Pixar’s “Up” (May 29), Universal’s “Land of the Lost” (June 5), Disney’s “G-Force” (July 24) and Par’s “G.I. Joe” (Aug. 7).

Outside of counterprogramming, studios are loathe to open films on the same weekend as a tentpole. That results in off-peak weekends seeing two and three titles.

On June 12, Par’s Eddie Murphy-Martin Sheen comedy “Imagine That” opens against Disney’s Sandra Bullock-Ryan Reynolds romantic comedy “The Proposal” and Sony’s Denzel Washington-John Travolta actioner “The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three,” directed by Ridley Scott.

With this year’s dates firmed long ago, studios are looking ahead. “If you want to protect your picture and get the proper playtime, then you’d better let people know that you’re going to be in the marketplace,” Disney prexy of domestic distribution Chuck Viane says. “There are 12 weeks of summer, and there are usually 12 big pictures.”

Looking at 2010, nearly every weekend between early May and late July sports a big title. There’s room for counterprogramming, but not much else.

Paramount/Marvel’s “Iron Man 2” opens May 7, while Universal’s untitled Robin Hood tale, starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott, bows May 14. They’re followed by Paramount/DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek Goes Fourth” on May 21 and Disney family actioner “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” on May 28.

Aside from Robin Hood and “Persia,” other would-be franchises include Fox’s “The A-Team” (to open June 11), Disney’s live-action “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” directed by Jon Turteltaub and starring Nicolas Cage (July 16), Sony’s Angelina Jolie starrer “Salt” (July 23) and Zack Snyder’s “Guardians of Ga’Hoole 3-D” (July 30).

Would-be franchises are tricky when it comes to dating so early, particularly in the current climate. Between the writers strike, the crippled economy and the usual challenges of negotiating with actors and filmmakers, it’s difficult to pull projects together and get them into production.

For example, Par slotted “Transformers 3” for July 1, 2011. Traditionally, studios like to date a movie only after the project has been officially announced. In the case of “Transformers 3,” however, Par specifically said it wasn’t an announcement, and that no deals have yet been inked with Michael Bay, or star Shia LaBeouf.

Par wanted to hold that date in the event that the three-quel goes forward, since they’re hoping “Transformers” will become a July 4th franchise. That didn’t mollify Bay, who wrote in a blog post that he had wanted to take more time off before getting under way on the third edition.

Some studios are more conservative than others in terms of dating projects that haven’t yet come together. The mixed messages underscore the delicate balancing act a studio faces on whether to claim a date before a rival does. Changing a movie’s release date inevitably inspires heavy negotiations and fan/media speculation that the pic is in trouble.

Aside from the tentatively scheduled “Transformers 3” (July 1), 2011 is starting to fill up with Sony’s “Spider-Man 4” (May 6), “Kung Fu Panda 2” (June 3), “Cars 2” (June 24) and the final “Harry Potter” pic (as yet untitled) set to open July 15.

An aggressive Marvel Entertainment has dated two original pics for summer 2011: “Thor,” set to open May 20, and “The First Avenger: Captain America,” bowing July 22. Paramount is distributor.

“Look at the titles that have already stepped out for 2011. ‘Spider-Man,’ ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Captain America,’ ‘Kung Fu Panda.’ I think people who have a big pictures say, ‘I’m going to put my stake in the ground and hope for the best,’ ” Bruer says.

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