Thursday, July 19, 2007

Summer Cinema’s One-Week Wonders

Great article on Summer Movies and why the huge opening weekend numbers may actually hurt in the long run.

Summer Cinema’s One-Week Wonders
Published: July 18, 2007

LOS ANGELES, July 17 — After its superstrong $182 million opening week in May, “Spider-Man 3” plunged at the box office by 61 percent the next week. “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” sank like a stone in its second week, dropping 66 percent. And when the box office gross for “Transformers” fell by only 47 percent after a week in theaters, Hollywood marveled at the movie’s strength.

The movie business has been heading this way for years, but this summer is proving the apotheosis of the one-week blockbuster. The blur of big-budget films may have left moviegoers with whiplash, given how quickly each film announces itself in television ads and then disappears from marquees, yet few in Hollywood are complaining. Far from it, since the steep drop-offs are largely fueled by a run of blockbusters from every major studio, and Hollywood has a chance of breaking 2004’s summer box office record.

“It’s about the best you can hope for without being on an island,” Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures, said.

For audiences, the summer’s ultrawide releases have made it easier than ever to get into blockbusters on opening weekend and more dangerous than ever for lesser films to open at the same time as these so-called tent poles. Moviegoers who made “Knocked Up” a hit, meanwhile, can expect plenty of knockoffs in the next few years, until its formula of raunchy comedy grows tired.

The blockbuster onslaught has been driven partly by a shift in the way studios and theater chains divide up box office receipts. Until several years ago, most of the grosses went to the studios initially, but theaters benefited more the longer a film played. As a result, megaplex owners had a financial disincentive to play a new movie on too many screens.

Now studios and theater chains typically agree on a flat percentage split, no matter how long a movie plays. So “Pirates,” “Spider-Man 3” and “Shrek the Third,” for example, each opened on more than 10,000 screens in May.

“We don’t care anymore whether we generate revenue in the first week, the third or the fifth,” said Mike Campbell, chief executive of Regal Cinemas, the nation’s biggest theater chain.

With cinemas freed to put each week’s new blockbuster on enough screens to offer show times every 20 minutes, the pressure on studios to deliver huge opening weeks has reached new proportions. It’s little surprise, then, that a film like “Transformers,” originally set for a Wednesday release, sped up its debut to a Monday night, and that more films than ever are sneaking into theaters the night before their scheduled releases.

Though there is little data to prove it, studio executives are convinced that the week-in, week-out blockbuster bombardment has also further eroded the repeat business that made these movies so tantalizing to studios. For movies like those big May “threequels,” which have each exceeded $300 million in domestic box office grosses but not yet equaled their franchise records, that is a shortcoming that huge worldwide grosses will more than offset.

But for films that are not part of such franchises or did not quite work the way they were intended to, the crowded schedule has created a cruel, cruel world.

“If you do come up with a movie that doesn’t hit, the consequences are as dire, if not more dire, than they’ve ever been,” said Adam Fogelson, president of marketing at Universal Pictures, which experienced those dire results with “Evan Almighty” after succeeding with the modestly budgeted “Knocked Up.”

The jampacked summer schedule has had other repercussions. Smaller studio movies can no longer count on picking up the spillover audiences, said Rob Moore, president of worldwide marketing, distribution and operations at Paramount. Warner Brothers, he noted, opened the romantic comedy “Lucky You” against “Spider-Man 3” to disastrous results.

“In the past, people who couldn’t get into the big blockbuster would see something else and then come back the next week,” he said. “But theaters and multiplexes can give you so many seats on opening day that it’s incredibly rare that somebody can’t get in within an hour of when they walk up.”

And Mr. Campbell, of Regal, said this year’s May offerings might have left audiences hung over a little bit in June, traditionally a gangbusters month. (Witness the underwhelming results of Warner Brothers’ “Ocean’s Thirteen” and Sony’s “Surf’s Up.”)

This summer’s scorecard, according to film executives, shows that originality (and not merely sequels) can work, though Hollywood’s ideas about what constitutes originality can be a bit mind-bending. “Transformers,” after all, is considered an original franchise for Paramount and DreamWorks, though it was based on a decades-old toy line and an animated series and movie. And with Hollywood simply in thrall to Judd Apatow, the writer-director-producer of “Knocked Up,” his originality is already spawning untold imitations.

Before the June lull, Hollywood had high hopes for breaking the 2004 summer box office record of $3.95 billion. As of Sunday, this year’s box office gross had reached $2.587 billion. On the strength of big July hits like “Transformers” and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” and with “The Simpsons” coming on July 27, expectations of record breaking continue to mount.

What will determine the outcome, said the box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Media by Numbers, could be whether August proves to be the new June, packed as it will be with franchise installments like Universal’s “Bourne Ultimatum” and New Line’s “Rush Hour 3,” as well as another Apatow-branded comedy, Sony’s “Superbad.”

The summer of 2008, by the way, looks as intensely competitive and crowded as this one. The comic-book adaptation “Iron Man” is scheduled to open on May 2, followed by the Wachowski brothers’ “Speed Racer” from Warner Brothers; the next installment of the “Narnia” series from Disney; the new “Indiana Jones” sequel; and a comedy produced by Mr. Apatow, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”

And the jockeying for prime position has already extended to 2009. Disney has claimed May 1 for the third “Narnia,” and two 3-D extravaganzas — James Cameron’s “Avatar” for 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks Animation’s “Monsters vs. Aliens” — so far look to duke it out on May 22.

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