Studios shifting more big-budget projects to earlier frames

As summer tentpole season gets increasingly crowded, studios are shifting more big-budget projects into the spring, with 39 wide releases skedded between Friday and the last weekend in April — up 34% jump from last year’s 29 pics in the same time frame.

And the near-gridlock includes six animated features within those 11 weeks, with four of them in 3D.

But it’s not just the volume, it’s the scope of the films looming, with big-scale popcorn fare like Universal’s “Fast Five,” Sony’s “Battle: Los Angeles” and Warner Bros.’ “Sucker Punch” in the mix.

In contrast, it appears that fewer films will be released this summer: 35 compared to last summer’s 42 (with summer having been redefined as the first weekend in May through Labor Day).

As one distribution exec said, “It’s tough to find a window with a weekend to yourself.”

With studios borrowing some of their summerish titles for spring dates, Hollywood hopes those pics will bring riches to late first quarter/early second quarter totals, in the way that last year’s “Alice in Wonderland,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Clash of the Titans” stood out. A few breakout hits would be welcome news to bizzers as 2011′s year-to-date box office is running behind last year by almost 25%.

Some B.O. observers are buzzing about February films like DreamWorks’ teen lit adaptation “I Am Number Four” on Feb. 18 and Warner Bros.’ Peter and Bobby Farrelly-directed laffer “Hall Pass,” set for release on Feb. 25.

Twentieth Century Fox’s 3D toon “Rio,” which bows April 15, may have been an ideal summer candidate, but previous spring toon hits — most recently “How to Train Your Dragon,” with nearly $218 million domestically — have proven late first quarter/early second quarter berths a fruitful playing ground for family-oriented pics.

“Once you get up and running, there’s no one to knock you out,” said Disney distribution topper Chuck Viane, referring to famously long legs for animated fare. Disney launches “Gnomeo and Juliet” this weekend and “Mars Needs Moms” on March 11. “Studios are carving out their own time frame,” Viane added.

But with six toons unspooling between now and April 29 — “Gnomeo and Juliet,” “Mars Needs Moms,” “Rio,” Universal’s “Hop,” Paramount’s “Rango” and the Weinstein Co.’s “Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil” — studios run the risk of oversaturating the family market, not to mention 3D screens, since “Rango” and “Hop” are the only two not in 3D.

Last year, “How to Train Your Dragon” was the only toon to hit multiplexes during this time frame; in fact, the toon enjoyed six weeks before the next family-oriented pic, “Furry Vengeance,” opened on April 30.

B.O. pundits say the spring sked is prime territory for family fare, since parents are more willing to take the kids to the multiplexes with fewer outdoor distractions available on the weekends. Easter is also an ideal launchpad for family films, with 72% of kids out of school on Good Friday (April 22 this year), according to studio sources.

Whether the abundant crop of springtime toons limits the genre’s own playability, bizzers remain optimistic that there should be enough coin to go around.

The same could be said for this spring’s live-action pack, as studios look for ideal counterprogramming to play against the season’s tentpole-like pics.

Warners’ “Hall Pass,” with Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis, looks to have breakthrough potential as the season’s next buddy comedy; last year’s “The Other Guys” did well for Sony during the summer, with $119 million domestically. U’s raunchy April 8 laffer “Your Highness,” toplining Danny McBride, James Franco and Natalie Portman, could also resonate with adult moviegoers.

Meanwhile, CBS Films has high hopes that teen girls will be drawn to “Beastly” on March 4, and Warners is similarly optimistic for the following week’s Amanda Seyfried starrer “Red Riding Hood.”

Focus Features launches “Hanna” April 8, two weeks before Easter, to give pic a nice lead-up before the holiday. With Easter on April 25, studios are going wide with higher-profile films several weeks before the holiday in order to give them more playtime leading up to May. Weinstein-Dimension are taking that approach with “Scream 4″; so did Fox with “Rio,” as both pics launch the week before Easter.

Other spring entries will attempt to emulate the success of past hits.

That includes U’s April 29 “Fast Five.” The studio’s latest in the “Fast and Furious” franchise looks to repeat its predecessor’s boffo springtime perf; that installment launched April 3, 2009, to become the series’ best domestic grosser with $155.2 million. Every other “Fast” pic launched in June.

Fox’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” sequel bows around the same time as the first pic, opening March 25. Original, which grossed $64 million Stateside, launched last year on March 19.

Warners continues its March-release trend with “Sucker Punch” helmer Zack Snyder. The director’s first three films launched during that month (his fourth, “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole,” launched in September). Lionsgate will do the same with Tyler Perry, who has proven his drawing power over the Easter frame. Perry’s “Madea’s Big Happy Family” is his latest holiday effort.

In hopes of mimicking the success of Fox’s 2009 Liam Neeson hit “Taken,” Warners bows the thesp’s next international thriller, “Unknown,” on Feb. 18.

An increased number of active distribs also bolsters the sked: Relativity Media has two spring releases, “Take Me Home Tonight” and “Limitless,” while FilmDistrict launches its inaugural film “Insidious” on April 1.

As more pics lay claim to spring dates with boffo tallies and more companies enter the distrib game, filling up the pipeline, bizzers expect to see studios further broaden their calendar slots.

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