Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution, spends a good part of his day obsessing over a calendar.
In another era, executives like Goldstein would have spent half their time on the road in meetings with theater owners from Chanute, Kan., to Montpelier, Vt., haggling and calling in favors to secure as many screens as possible for their studio’s upcoming box office draw. Now, the biggest component of Goldstein’s job unfolds in a conference room as his team dissects a release schedule that’s become ever more competitive. These days, Hollywood studios aren’t just jockeying with each other for audiences’ attention; they’re grappling with streaming services that continue to rise in popularity. And it’s the distribution executives, tasked with bringing movies to the masses, who are experiencing these changing consumer habits most intensely.
“You need an overlay of everything happening in the marketplace,” Goldstein says in his Burbank office while looking at a massive electronic interactive calendar that’s filled with every Hollywood film dated for the next three years and beyond. “I spend an hour or more per day talking about dates. It’s more of a 3D chess game than it’s ever been before.”
Like his counterparts at the major studios, Goldstein is responsible for the theatrical rollout of a movie. But as streaming titans move into the filmmaking space with gusto, the scope of the job has expanded well beyond the numbers game of securing theaters and gauging box office grosses. It’s become a balancing act that puts a greater emphasis on strategy, particularly when it comes to finding the perfect time to release a film.
Notes Kyle Davies, Paramount’s president of domestic distribution: “You’re constantly trying to find the best date. Even if you find the best date, you keep wondering if there’s a better date. You never stop thinking about it.”
Competition among Hollywood studios feels increasingly pitched given that one, Disney, has the power to set the cultural agenda, having swallowed up many of the entertainment universe’s hottest brands. With an arsenal that includes Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm and now Fox, Disney is an entertainment colossus that bestrides the entertainment landscape.
There’s at least one reason why distribution experts have put added attention on when a movie hits theaters: Consumers have never had so many options. When it comes to dating movies, executives don’t only worry about what other studio titles are opening. They have to ask if there’s a new season of “Stranger Things” dropping on Netflix that weekend, or if the latest edition of “Call of Duty” is about to be unveiled. It’s all part of a battle being waged by more traditional forms of entertainment, such as theatrical movies, against digital giants that offer viewers access to hours and hours of streaming content at the click of a cursor.
“Technology has given the consumer many more entertainment choices,” Goldstein says. “They get to decide when they see something and how they want to see it. We are vying for eyeballs not only against other studios but also in the online space.”
For those tasked with filling seats in multiplexes, it’s a license to get creative, looking for opportunities and taking chances in weeks that were once seen as dumping grounds between blockbusters.
“Not too long ago there were two seasons, Christmas and summer,” says Adrian Smith, Sony’s president of domestic distribution. “Now we use the whole calendar, and you see tentpoles released throughout the year.”
Last year fielded four record months at the box office, as breakout hits like Disney’s “Black Panther” (February), Paramount’s “A Quiet Place” (April), Warner Bros.’ “The Meg” and “Crazy Rich Asians” (August) and Sony’s “Venom” (October) were all released in what previously would have been considered unconventional times. In hindsight, they were risks worth taking, but Goldstein recalls two sleepless weeks in August between “The Meg” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” in which he fretted that the blockbuster hopefuls wouldn’t be embraced in the dog days of summer.
“Technology has given the consumer many more entertainment choices. … We are vying for eyeballs not only against other studios but also in the online space.”
Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros.
“Every time we think we have a rule with release dates, we break it,” says Jim Orr, Universal’s president of domestic distribution. “You have to use all 52 weeks a year, and that forces us to look outside the box. We found great success in many situations,” he adds, pointing to M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” this January and Jordan Peele’s “Us” in March. Both thrillers became profitable for the studio despite opening months removed from summer blockbuster season.
Distribution executives are often the public face of a film’s performance. Part of their job is getting on the phone with reporters during a movie’s opening weekend. That means that when a movie hits, they get to take a victory lap on Sunday morning. But if it flops, they have to explain what went wrong without throwing directors and their studio colleagues under the bus. Having to navigate seamlessly between tact and candor is no easy task.
“There’s a lot riding on the initial weekend that doesn’t always tell the full story,” Orr says. He cites “Green Book” as a film that didn’t have a flashy debut but ended its theatrical run with a tidy $321 million worldwide. “It’s important to have a very honest and straightforward relationship with the press, but I want to provide a positive outlook for our filmmakers without coming off as oblivious to reality.”
Behind the scenes, studio executives must consider which films deserve the big-screen treatment in the first place. “We’ve seen the landscape shift in terms of mediums,” says Cathleen Taff, Disney’s head of global distribution. “You have to create a story that wants to be told in theaters. That means you need urgency to get audiences out of their house and show up in movie theaters, and then go talk about it after.”
It’s a constantly evolving dialogue between distribution, marketing and production departments, the holy trinity responsible for greenlighting movies. Distribution officials aim to calculate how much money a movie can feasibly make at the domestic box office. The execs say that knowledge comes from experience and instinct, as well as facts and figures. They traditionally use historical comparisons to ballpark a film’s potential earnings. But experts are finding that the window for reference points has dramatically shrunk.
That can be problematic, because movies have a long gestation. It can take three years from when a project is greenlit until it is released — and that’s with luck. In an age when the industry is rapidly changing, distribution executives are tasked with figuring out how a movie that was developed in a different era will play when the zeitgeist has moved on to other things. Take Annapurna’s 2019 film “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” The studio optioned the rights to Maria Semple’s best-selling novel in 2013, a time when “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” based on Suzanne Collins’ wildly successful book trilogy, was the highest-grossing domestic movie of the year. After a six-year journey to the big screen, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” arrived in an environment that’s been increasingly hostile to literary adaptations.
“There used to be a time where you could go back five-plus years and use similar films as comparisons,” says Sony’s Smith. “In today’s world, I try to stay within a year or two years at most. The marketplace has changed, and people’s habits have changed.”