Macho matchups

Weekend warriors locked in deadly face-offs

Forget the buckets of blood Quentin Tarantino splashed across the screen in “Kill Bill Vol. 1.” When “Kill Bill Vol. 2” opened wide on April 16, the real carnage was at the box office.

Last summer, Lions Gate claimed April 16 for its big-budget, R-rated vigilante thriller, “The Punisher.” In January, Miramax moved “Kill Bill” against it. Lions Gate, which booked 2,649 playdates for “Punisher” — its widest release ever — refused to budge.

The result was a head-on collision at the multiplex: two vigilante action-thrillers chasing the same audience in the same venues on the same opening weekend.

“It’s absolutely suicidal for both movies,” predicted Tom Sherak, a partner at Revolution Studios.

Welcome to the box office demolition derby of 2004, a year in which the studio release calendar is more crowded and more pugnacious than an open audition for “American Idol.”

The sheer number of wide releases is daunting. Consider these statistics:

  • Through April 9 of this year — i.e., in 15 weekends — there were 43 wide releases, up from 35 in the same period last year.

  • There will be 46 wide releases between the first weekend in May and Labor Day, up from 41 last year.

  • There will be four summer weekends this year with four competing wide releases; last summer there was only one such weekend.

The competition is fierce and sometimes the motives are economic. Sometimes they’re personal.

For studios, the stakes have never been higher. With combined marketing and production costs soaring above $200 million for some studio tentpoles, the pressure on opening weekend is reaching a nauseating level.

“You get no second chances for your openings,” Universal Pictures vice chairman Marc Shmuger says. “The first number that pops is going to set the fate of the product through its entire lifetime. You’ve got to get it right. The only glory is in pulling off the successful weekend.”

Distribution has always been a combative business, fueled by personal grudges and corporate one-upmanship.

Last year, after DreamWorks mounted an ad campaign announcing a release date of Nov. 5, 2004, for its animated feature, “Shark Tale” (then called “Sharkslayer”), Disney attached a teaser to “Finding Nemo,” announcing the same date for the next ‘toon from Pixar.

Chagrined, DreamWorks moved “Shark” to Oct. 1.

In the old days, head-to-head competition wasn’t quite so calamitous. Films didn’t open at super-saturated levels and they didn’t evaporate after a few weeks. “Ghostbusters” and “Gremlins” opened on the same weekend in June 1984. Both were hits.

But distributors are opening films wider, scheduling big titles more evenly across the distribution calendar, and strategically rescheduling at the last possible minute to gain competitive advantage. At the same time, they’re buying deep inventories of TV advertising in advance, which limits their ability to move a title if another one lands on their date.

“There are no safe weekends,” one producer says. “It’s dog eat dog, week after week.”

Adding to the dilemma is the fact that even small distributors are going wide with their releases, rather than platforming them.

Fox Searchlight has already released three pics wide in 2004. Focus’ “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was still enjoying a robust per-screen average last week in 734 venues, after opening in more than 1,300. On April 30, Film Foundry will release its Bobby Jones biopic “Stroke of Genius” on 1200 screens.

Blockbuster release campaigns for specialty movies is a trend that Miramax spearheaded in 1994, when it opened Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” in 1,100 theaters. Miramax opened “Kill Bill Vol. 2” in more than 3,000 venues — a wider campaign than “The Punisher.”

These films are opening in a highly congested market. There were fivenew wide releases on Easter weekend — but many of these openings were dented not by the other new films but by the holding power of Newmarket’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

The previous weekend brought four wide releases. Together, that amounts to a bewildering array of choices for consumers, and the body count is climbing.

Last week, “The Alamo,” which cost $100 million and opened to just $9.2 million, was badly dinged by the competition.

The Disney costume drama received some favorable reviews. But studio tentpoles now perform in a climate of drastically inflated expectations, in which B.O. failure is magnified by hundreds of local news outlets from coast to coast.

Last week brought a flurry of negative stories about “Alamo” and its performance, which set off a chain reaction, upsetting the stock price of its corporate parent.

“One picture is not going to take a conglom down,” Sherak says — but he adds that one bad weekend can certainly take down a movie.

“We’re living in a buyer’s market,” he observes. “There are too many movies. When a picture doesn’t open strongly — at least with some of these movies — it’s over.”

A macho showdown like April 16 may seem strange given the options studios have across the 52-week calendar.

With 35,000 screens in the domestic market and huge marketing campaigns built on market research across a broad range of demographic niches, studios have grown more sophisticated about counterprogramming.

The result is a weekend like May 2, 2003, when “X2” and “The Lizzie Maguire Movie” opened, driving an 88% increase in the B.O. over the same frame the previous year.

But studios have also grown more aggressive about last-minute schedule changes. Moving a release date used to be a sign of weakness. Now it’s often a predatory move, creating ugly battlefield weekends like April 2, when MGM opened “Walking Tall” against Revolution’s “Hellboy.”

“Hellboy” was the first to claim the date, and it opened at the top of the B.O. with $23 million. In late February, MGM put “Walking Tall” on April 2, a move that some estimate cost “Hellboy” $5 million in first-weekend B.O.

The damage to “Walking Tall” was arguably greater. It grossed $15.5 million in its first three days before plummeting 46% the following weekend.

Earlier this year, Universal moved “Dawn of the Dead” against “Taking Lives,” an R-rated thriller from Warner Bros. WB wasn’t happy. Angry phone calls flew between the studios. The weekend went to “Dawn,” which grossed $27 million in its opening frame. “Taking Lives” grossed just $11.5 million.

Universal and Warner Bros. are preparing to lock horns two more times in the next few months.

Warners just moved “Catwoman” to July 23 against Universal’s “The Bourne Supremacy.” Warners will also open the Olsen twins comedy “New York Minute” against Universal’s biggest tentpole, “Van Helsing,” on May 7.

To be sure, it’s hard to pick a weekend without running into a release from Warners, which is opening nearly 30 titles in 2004. Executives say the scheduling of “New York Minute” and “Van Helsing” is an example of adroit counter-programming that’s unlikely to hurt either movie.

Warners distribution chief Dan Fellman says its rescheduling of “Catwoman” isn’t tit-for-tat. “Box office in the summer is more than $200 million a week,” he says. “We date our movies for what’s best for Warner.”

The “Taking Lives”-“Dawn” showdown, Fellman says, “was a one-time situation. We happened to bump heads. These things happen. You can’t take it personally.”

But two executives who asked not to be named said the showdown did get personal.

Shmuger declined to comment on the dispute. “No studio has squatting rights on any given weekend,” he says. “The marketplace owns the weekends.”

He’s right, of course. Then again, the most successful B.O. hit of the year is an independently financed, graphically violent crucifixion drama that virtually every studio passed on.

The marketplace has arguably never been so tough to read. With the summer money season about to start, that has to make the studios very nervous.

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