Release strategy is a tricky game

Awards contenders have a date with the fall

TORONTO — This is the time of year when I empathize with those studio mavens who are charged with the responsibility of deciding how and when to open their new fall films.

In summer, the process of dating movies has come down to a science: The majors are already wheeling and dealing over key summer dates in ’08 and ’09 for the likes of James Cameron’s “Avatar” or DreamWorks’ “Monsters vs. Aliens.” But what’s the ideal opening weekend this fall for something like “Run, Fat Boy, Run” or “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”?

The marketing and distribution gurus know two things going in: If a film tanks, they will take the blame for choosing the wrong theaters on the wrong weekend. If it succeeds, no one will mention them.

Decisions of this sort are tougher this fall for several reasons: With the studios shrewdly mobilizing their sequels and threequels, the summer clearly belongs to the tentpoles, with few screens available for specialty pictures. At the same time, the number of specialty films vying for attention has increased exponentially. Between five to seven serious contenders (many from distinguished filmmakers) seem to be opening each weekend, with Globes and Oscars already flashing before their eyes.

Complicating all this is that several of the new films deal with similar subjects — terrorism or the war in Iraq. Filmmakers don’t want two Iraq films to collide over a single weekend. In the same vein, they don’t want a new movie about Bob Dylan (“I’m Not There”) bumping into Julie Taymor’s Beatles movie (“Across the Universe”). With specialty films as well as tentpoles, one soft weekend can spell disaster.

There are, basically, two conflicting philosophies about awards season. To one group, it’s better to open an Oscar contender in late September when it can gain visibility on the festival circuit. To another, it’s wiser to open later in the year so it will be fresh in the minds of Oscar voters.

But it’s not that simple. Talk to the specialists on playdates and they will confide their war stories about quirky stars who have superstitions about those dates that have worked for (or against) them in the past. Some also want to avoid possible conflicts with rivals whose work they secretly find intimidating.

Given this friction, it’s certainly possible to second-guess many playdate decisions. The strategy of opening “Knocked Up” on June 1 — the second weekend of “Pirates of the Caribbean” — was daring, but shrewd. The film went on to gross $186.2 million worldwide, a rare triumph of counterprogramming.

On the other hand, the decision to open the Nicole Kidman-Daniel Craig film, “The Invasion,” on Aug. 17 can be construed as an admission of failure. Indeed, some 26 movies were disgorged into the theaters during the last two weekends of August, a time when few success stories have emerged.

But esoteric considerations may often guide decisions on opening dates. Take Martin Scorsese’s pricey documentary on the Rolling Stones, titled “Shine a Light.” This film was supposed to open in September, only to be pushed back to April. What was the reason? Was the campaign not ready? Were the Stones themselves unavailable for promotion? Did Mick Jagger want his turn in the editing room?

Many films are postponed very late in the game, sometimes for valid reasons. The classic case was “The Godfather” which was pulled from its prize Christmas dates in 1972 to be released in March. Valuable editing changes were made, adding almost 20 minutes to its running time but, as with all such delays, rumors quickly spread that the film was a mess. It wasn’t!

Even now, as many potential Oscar prospects are screened at the Toronto Festival, 11th-hour shifts are being made concerning release dates. A couple of films that have played well are being moved back, others moved up. No doubt some movies will disappear from the fall lineup completely for further doctoring or a new ad campaign.

All the while, the marketing and distribution experts who are stuck with the final decisions play their chess game warily. They know that, come Oscar time, they will be bums or heroes. Or probably both.

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