Theatrical Release Factors
By Jeff Ulin
With the globalization of the world, instant access from the Internet, and growing threats from piracy, more and more event films are being released simultaneously around the world—in film parlance, a “day-and-date” release. A day-and-date release also allows for focused publicity, and affords international territories to capture the momentum rather than release a film when core fans are aware they are seeing the picture downstream. Moreover, for very large titles it allows the release to become eventized.
All studios scrutinize the competitive landscape, as the cleaner window and the less competition the better. Competition can be segmented into a number of categories.
First, there is competition from other product being released by the same studio/distributor. This is obviously the easiest category to address, and while studios will downplay this issue there is obviously no reason to tax bandwidth and potentially compete against yourself.
The second category is direct competition within a targeted demographic or genre. For example, if a major Disney animated movie is releasing, it might make sense to pick a different time frame and not divide the animation audience; of course, there have been conscious attempts to directly release against a similar film in attempt to crush the competition and sustain an upper hand in the market.
Finally, there is generic competition—a big enough film that may monopolize the box office. This is especially true in cases of sequels. Often distributors will avoid event films such as the next Spiderman; if enough people move away, then opportunities arise to counter-program to targeted demographics.
Outside Factors (Events of National Attention)
Films do not just compete against other films but also for consumer dollars against other media. It is believed that certain events of national importance, such as national elections or major sporting events, will siphon off attention and can impact box office. It is also more difficult to market your film during this time. For example, media will be harder and more expensive to place at the peak of an election cycle. Thus, releasing a film in the window of an event of national importance will likely make it more expensive to reach desired awareness levels and even if awareness targets are hit there is a risk that consumers will opt to spend their time and money on the national event that only occurs once every few years.
These scheduled events should be factored when planning release dates; however, in a seemingly unpredictable world, news events including wars and terrorist attacks can also create reasons for last minute juggling.
Acceleration of Revenues
With more films being made and released, distributors now face a compressed revenue cycle of a film taking in a higher and higher percentage of its overall revenue in the first 2–3 weeks of release. A few interrelated factors have contributed to this fast-paced cycle.
First, people started to focus on opening weekends and records, putting pressure on openings. Marketing dollars were therefore allocated to open a film as large as possible—even if a film’s box office had a sharper week-to-week decline at the beginning than it may have had with a debut on fewer screens. The initial larger box office could make up for this drop and theoretically push the cumulative total higher than an otherwise narrower release would have yielded.
Second, the increase in films made spacing between major movies shrink. Competitive windows have narrowed, and studios now look to all 52 weeks of the year to find the best competitive free window in which to release. Go out against the wrong film and you could be done in the first week. A new movie is always on its heels, and if it does not perform someone else will take its screens. Accordingly, distributors look to maximize these shorter runs: what am I likely to open up against, what am I coming after, and what is coming after me. Each of these factors can dramatically influence the film’s performance.
The net result of the acceleration of revenue not only puts inordinate pressures on distributors and content owners, but has a disproportionate negative impact on theater owners. The longer a film plays, the more the split shifts to favor the theater owner; accordingly, theater owners are losing more of their upsides because they lock into revenue schemes where the upside is in downstream weeks that at worst no longer exist and at best have lower box office revenues to split.
Exacerbating these pressures are key holiday weekends and the built-in expectations of sequels (which often gravitate to these dates as a safe haven given the usually high budgets). Memorial Day weekend, Fourth of July, November (to play into Thanksgiving), and Christmas have become prime real estate. If a studio has a picture they view as a sure thing they will leak out that date early and try and stake out that turf. Although the track record vindicates this strategy, it may not be the best strategy; to wit, Batman—The Dark Knight opened in mid-July 2008 and went on to become one of the highest grossing theatrical titles of all time.
Finally, what often is not talked about but can be the most influential factor is superstition. If a film (or director) has had good luck with a date, the studio may stick with that timing. I have seen cases where a date seemed illogical only to realize it was the “director’s date” or that when the original film launched (in the case of plotting a release date for a sequel).
Excerpt from The Business of Media Distribution: Monetizing Film, TV, and Video Content by Jeff Ulin, © 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.