'Wonderland, 'Hunger Games' Glory Spur Tentpole

Hollywood starting to spread the tentpole wealth more effectively across the calendar

(From the pages of the March 26 issue of Variety.)

Box office should be a yearround game, and yet until recently, studios have clumsily clustered their biggest films in the summer and holiday seasons. Finally, though, Hollywood is starting to spread the tentpole wealth more effectively across the calendar.

For instance, after years of scheduling just one large-scale live-action offering and one toon in March, Hollywood has begun to stuff the month. Call it the “Alice in Wonderland” effect; in 2010, Alice beat all expectations and scored the largest-ever March debut, with $116 million.

Just like last year, the month has bowed at least four major tentpoles. Results have been variable. Packing March with more summer-suitable pics has resulted in at least one spectacular misfire and one certifiable hit. (Overall, spring box office trails last year’s by 12%.)

Warner Bros. started this year’s March madness with the pricey “Jack the Giant Slayer,” which never sprouted. Just a week later, Disney followed with the similarly targeted “Oz the Great and Powerful”; that pic has passed $300 million worldwide. On March 22, Fox launched the month’s usual toon offering — and the studio’s first DreamWorks Animation release, “The Croods” — and Paramount rounds out the month, bowing its long-delayed tentpole, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” on March 28.

Has spring break become the new Memorial Day? Judging by next year’s calendar, the answer is yes.

Five tentpoles are already skedded for March 2014: Warner’s Tom Cruise actioner “All You Need Is Kill” opens alongside Fox-DWA’s “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” with Lionsgate’s “Hunger Games”-like tale “Divergent” and Disney’s “Muppets” sequel bowing two weeks later. Par’s biblical epic “Noah” finishes the March 2014 flood.

The year after, Fox already has two tentpoles dated: “The Fantastic Four” and, from DWA, “The Penguins of Madagascar.”

While it was Alice that changed distributors’minds about how much a spring tentpole could make, it was last year’s “The Hunger Games” that sealed the deal. “Hunger Games” blew past “Alice” to a $152 million opening. Never before had a film earned more than $100 million during a March opening weekend. “Alice” was a surprise, but soon it seemed clear that young tentpole-minded moviegoers were attending more pics before the traditional summer moviegoing season, which itself has crept from Memorial Day weekend to the first weekend in May.

Paramount took lots of flack for pushing “G.I. Joe” from summer to a March slot, which at the time seemed less crowded.

When DreamWorks Animation shifted “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” to March 7 from a Thanksgiving leadup slot of Nov. 1, DWA marketing maven Anne Globe pointed to the outsized March success of DWA’s “Ice Age” franchise. “Our distributor … has recommended we move “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” to the spring of 2014, which we totally agree is a much more advantageous release window,” Globe said.

For DWA, the shift was about the long term. The move to spring 2014, which left only two DWA films in 2013, forced the company to lay off a number of employees, though that would not deter CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. “We are adjusting our operating infrastructure costs accordingly,” Katzenberg said in a statement.

This month’s crop, with just “G.I. Joe” yet to bow, is unlikely to produce a comparable “Alice”-caliber box office hit, but the success of “Oz,” at least, should keep studio execs betting on March.

Key releases on the move

Studios moved several high-profile pics from the typical tentpole season into March:
March 22
New release date for “Jack the Giant Slayer” from June 5, 2012.
March 28
New release date for “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” from June 29, 2012.
March 2014
New March 7, 2014, release date for “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” from Nov. 1.

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