Hollywood’s May melee

Big-budget blitz leaves industry gasping for air

Last year, before “The Dark Knight” opened July 18, some pundits clucked their tongues at Warner Bros.’ decision to open the film so “late” in the summer.

The film went on to gross $1 billion — vaulting it into the record books — but it wasn’t enough to change Hollywood’s earlier-is-better mentality. And the biz is paying a penalty for that mindset this year.

Summer doesn’t officially start until June 21, but the majority of Hollywood’s big-budget f/x-heavy tentpoles have already opened. The studios’ eagerness to grab early playdates led to six such pics bowing in May, while the rest of the summer sees only three or four more.

The good news: The remainder of the studios’ slates demonstrate their increasing diversity in summer fare, with releases ranging from comedies to gangster movies.

The bad news: Even though five of the six May films did well, they would have done better if they’d had more breathing room. And that sends up warning signals about Hollywood’s stubborn reluctance to spread the wealth, calendar-wise.

Hollywood execs are realizing that they’d better change their thinking before next summer, because the top-heavy summer is taking a toll.

May had three fanboy movies (Fox’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” Paramount’s “Star Trek” and Warner Bros.’ “Terminator Salvation”), two family films (Fox’s “A Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian” and Disney-Pixar’s “Up”) and one thriller (“Angels and Demons”).

Only “Terminator” could be classified as a disappointment, but all six films had to share a box office tally that is finite. The month brought in $1 billion, which is roughly the same amount as the $987 million in May 2008. Last year, May tentpoles “Iron Man” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” grossed north of $300 million in North America alone. No May 2009 event title will reach those heights in North America.

The crowded pipeline also is having an impact on the foreign B.O.

“In the end, it works against us all,” one top studio exec says.

The amassing of so many tentpoles in May points to the perilous business of dating big-budget event pics so far in advance. Whether due to tradition or a desire to play it safe, Hollywood has yet to turn the box office into a truly year-round business.

Instead, the studios continue to depend heavily on summer.

Franchises are huge engine-drivers for the majors because of the various revenue streams they create. But they cost plenty to produce and market, and need big returns at the worldwide box office.

Studios began releasing their big-budget tentpoles earlier and earlier in May to be the first out of the gate, even though most kids aren’t out of school until June.The migration began more than a decade ago, culminating with the blockbuster openings of “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” in May 2007.

But the advantage of going in May has begun to evaporate. This year, it’s the three June and July event pics — “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” — that have room to maneuver.

When studios began dating their 2009 summer tentpoles in late 2007, no one intended such a crush in May. And by the time they realized what was happening, it was too late to change, or they simply opted to stay put.

“Star Trek,” for example, was originally set to open in late December 2008. But Paramount pushed the release to May 8, 2009, even though Fox had already dated “Wolverine” for May 1.Fox said in December 2007 that it would release “Museum 2” over Memorial Day weekend in 2009 — a major seasonal shift, since the first “Night at the Museum” opened over Christmas 2006. But Fox thought it had Memorial Day weekend to itself — at least until Warner Bros. said it would open “Terminator Salvation” then as well.

The May crunch resulted in three fanboy-oriented pics bowing within four weeks of each other. The trio also had to compete for attention with Sony’s “Angels and Demons,” which opened May 15, as well as “Museum 2,” and there’s only so much love to spread around.

In addition to having to share the Memorial Day frame with “T4,” “Museum 2” faced direct competition a week later from Disney-Pixar’s “Up.”

The Mouse House had originally set “Up” to debut June 12, but then moved the opening to May 29. A big reason was to give the 3-D toon some time to play before Fox’s 3-D animated “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” goes into theaters July 1. There’s still just a limited number of 3-D screens, so Disney erred on the side of caution.

Creating some elbow room also could explain why Warners decided to open “T4” when it did, instead of one or two weekends later, as Par’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” opens June 24.

But at what cost?

“Movies — every movie — needs a chance to run. You get slaughtered otherwise,” one distribution topper says.

There is little doubt that the May pileup has depressed grosses for each of the event pics. Domestic B.O. revenues for May ran slightly ahead of last year’s; the difference is, there were more mouths to feed.

Last year, Par’s May release “Iron Man” cumed $582 million worldwide. Par’s “Star Trek,” which has been just as well received, will likely top out at $235 million domestically and $125 million overseas for a total of $360 million. That’s still a bonanza, but the profit margins will be less.

“Wolverine” has grossed $171.6 million overseas for a worldwide total of $343 million to date. That’s more than enough to keep the lucrative franchise alive, and well north of the worldwide total of the first “X-Men” pic. The last two “X-Men” films, however, each grossed north of $400 million worldwide, and box observers say the film’s take was definitely cut into by “Star Trek.”

“Museum 2” is still early in its run, but like “Wolverine,” could see its worldwide pot diminished to some degree by having competition so quickly from “Up.” In its first 10 days, “Museum 2” cumed an impressive $200 million worldwide, but the pic won’t come close to matching the $574.5 million grossed globally by the original.

Sony’s “Angels” has taken up much of the oxygen at the foreign box office, grossing north of $252 million overseas since it opened May 15. Domestically, the sequel has had a tougher time.

After “Transformers” bows June 26, there are no established action tentpoles left to open, underscoring again how top-heavy May was with fanboy titles. So “Transformers” likely will have an easy road, since it will only have “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” to contend with. And the Potter pic doesn’t open until nearly three weeks later, on July 15.

Studios have become more willing in the past several years to bow mid-size films in off-peak months.

They have even more incentive now. The remarkably strong first four months of the year saw films like “Taken” and “Fast and Furious” do summertime business, even though they cost far less to produce.

Sony and Universal are taking a chance in deciding to open two drama actioners in June and July, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3′ (June 12) and “Public Enemies” (July 1), respectively. Historically, such films usually wait until fall.

The idea in opening “Pelham” and “Public Enemies” in summer is to offer an alternative to popcorn pics, family fare and a number of comedies. Such counterprogamming has generally been the purview of indie companies and studio specialty arms.

And with the runaway success of “The Devil Wears Prada,” studio romantic comedies have become something of a summer staple.

As for future summer calendars, Par has hopes of turning “G.I. Joe,” which it opens on Aug. 7, into a new franchise. Time will tell whether it gains a toehold this summer and beyond.