Slating on thin ice

Fretful over potential glut, studios disagree about how much is too much

It’s a dicey equation: The number of studios keeps shrinking, the number of movies in the marketplace keeps rising.

The Hollywood majors therefore are wrestling with a weighty decision: Is this the moment to grab market share and dominate through sheer volume? Or does a “fewer but better” strategy make more sense — aim for profits, not bulk.

Not surprisingly, the majors disagree on the magic formula.

Though slate sizes are always in flux, two distinct schools are emerging.

One side, best embodied by Sony and Warner Bros., opt to release well over 20 films a year, and consistently finish high in the year-end market-share tally.

The other side, typified by 20th Century Fox and Universal, has been to follow a more moderate approach, hovering closer to 15 pics per year.

Even so, both camps are warily probing for some optimum level.

Both Fox and U say they are looking to increase their output.

If you include its Searchlight titles that are planned for wide release, Fox says it has 20 films on tap for 2005. That’s around the 20- to 22-film level the studio says it would like to be at each year.

And U, which is releasing 17 films this year, says its new owner, NBC, is more willing to give the film division more resources needed to expand — as opposed to the chronically cash-strapped Vivendi regime.

Sony and Warners will likely rein in production.

Warners, which is fielding 20 wide releases this year, says it plans for 21 in 2006 and then 22 the next year, with four event pics each year.

Sony, which has the largest1 ’05 slate with 24 after absorbing MGM’s leftovers, is also likely to have a smaller slate in the future.

Revolution, which has been supplying around a third of its slate, will likely reduce output when (and if) it renews its pact.

Paramount and Disney are both in a transitional state and seem unsure about their targets.

The pressure for super-sized slates is a reflection of the sway homevid sales have over the movie biz and the soaring values put on film libraries.

But there is a limit to how much each studio can handle.

“There’s a finite number of favorable dates out there before you begin to cannibalize yourself,” says Fox co-chair Tom Rothman. “There’s also a finite amount of top-flight creative work that our marketing and distribution people can produce. Every film must have the best. Given these parameters, our emphasis is on profitability-per-picture, not market share.”

News Corp. chief operating officer Peter Chernin echoes the point, telling analysts recently that the Fox “strategy of profitable filmmaking” calls for keeping an eye on each picture’s return, not market share.

Still, studios remain uncertain about where to draw the line.

“Nobody knows where that point is,” says U vice chair Marc Shmuger. “But everybody knows that at some point when you get to a certain volume of releases, you cannot give everything you have to every one of your releases.”

Within studios, marketing and distribution specialists don’t always see eye to eye. Promo campaigns, especially for summer tentpoles, tend to function best when there’s a year to plan tie-ins, publicity appearances and the right crescendo of trailers, TV spots and one-sheets.

Distributors can be more fleet of foot, thanks in part to the continued increase in the number of American movie screens. The Motion Picture Assn. of America counted 36,594 U.S. screens last year, compared with 26,586 in 1994.

“It’s easier for the distribution side to handle more movies than it is for the marketing side,” Warner Bros. distribution chief Dan Fellman acknowledges. “There’s only so many magazine covers you can get, TV shows (to run ads on) and trailer spots.”

With plenty of screens available, the art of distribution these days is more and more about picking the right release date. But recent box office experience suggests that the crowded calendar is making that job harder.

While Sony and Disney had hoped they could create the semblance of a summer weekend in April, the attempt to launch both “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “XXX: State of the Union” didn’t defy the calendar after all.

The rest of May is marked by bruising battles that have left studio execs queasy.

Fox’s big-budgeted tentpole “Kingdom of Heaven” is getting a run for its money from Warners’ low-budget slasher “House of Wax.” And the prospective comedy faceoff on May 13 between U’s “Kicking & Screaming” and New Line’s “Monster-in-Law” is keeping both studios on edge.

The thicket of big releases has left studios wishing they could rewrite the calendar.

“Certainly, the No. 1 wish of studios is having more than 52 weekends per year,” says Sony vice chair Jeff Blake. “The No. 2 goal is to make more weekends good weekends. I think the idea of stretching the summer is always attractive, and stretching the holiday season is another thing that’s considered a good objective.”

The summer congestion, with 43 pics currently scheduled for release in the 17-week season, has led to numerous date shifts.

The remake of “The Pink Panther,” starring Steve Martin as Inspector Clouseau, has hopscotched across the calendar as it shifted hands from MGM to Sony. Originally scheduled for July 22, it moved to Sept. 23, then back to Aug. 5.

Sony also is still trying to figure out what to do with “Into the Blue,” also inherited from MGM. The tropical thriller with Paul Walker and Jessica Alba was initially scheduled for the first quarter of 2005, moved to Aug. 19, then back to July 15 by MGM, and then by Sony to Sept. 30 — odd timing for a sexy adventure whose cast members spend most of their time in bathing suits.

Warners has its share of such problems, too: “Dukes of Hazzard” has struggled to find a congenial date on the calendar, switching from July 29 to June 24 to Aug. 5.

There is very little room for error.

Fox’s “The Fantastic Four” fled Independence Day weekend for July 8 once Par and DreamWorks’ “War of the Worlds” hijacked the date.

That move set off a domino reaction that transformed midsummer’s competitive environment. It bounced “Bewitched” from July 8 to June 24, which bumped “Dukes of Hazzard” to Aug. 5. Now Fox has another title, “Rebound,” on July 1, while Disney has opted to put “Dark Water” against “The Fantastic Four” on July 8.

The distribution tally at every studio is a reflection of the congloms’ different corporate mandates.

Is it any surprise, for instance, that Sony chief Howard Stringer would put so high a premium on his movie division? Film revenues surged last quarter, thanks in part to the release of “Hitch” and DVD sales of “Spider-Man 2,” even as Sony’s music and electronics divisions sagged.

Fox Filmed Entertainment, by contrast, has a lower profile among News Corp.’s expanding satellite, TV and publishing assets, though in the first quarter, income at the movie studio grew 15%, helping to offset lower profits from the TV division.

“It’s fair to say that more of the focus is on big, ‘event’ films, and that takes a lot of resources,” says Fox prexy Hutch Parker. “With blockbusters, you’re trying to get everybody, all at once. With the rest of the films on the slate, you need to be more explicit about whom they speak to, and how.”

(Claude Brodesser, David Cohen and Nicole Laporte contributed to this report.)