Hollywood's Dating Hell

"Hotel Transylvania" shut the door on "Frankenweenie" and "Dredd" got lost as competition for release slots intensifies.

When, back in 2011, Disney first decided to open Tim Burton's quirky stop-motion film Frankenweenie on Oct. 5, 2012, the horizon looked reasonably clear. Sony's animated Hotel Transylvania, its closest competition, was debuting two weeks earlier, giving both movies some breathing space. But then, in February, Sony, juggling a crowded fall slate, pushed Transylvania back to Sept. 28, leaving only a one-week gap between the kids pics. A nervous Disney contemplated moving Frankenweenie but decided to stay the course when early tracking suggested the black-and-white picture would open north of $20 million.

That didn't happen. Frankenweenie bowed to only $11.4 million, the latest fatality in Hollywood's brutal dating wars. Why are so many movies aimed at similar audiences facing off? There simply aren't enough weekends in the year to support the number of wide releases studios and bigger indie players are jamming into the multiplex. Last year, 150 wide releases, nearly three movies a weekend, vied for 52 available slots. Except in cases of summer and holiday tentpoles, film companies have little choice but to pick a date and hope it doesn't get too crowded. "When you have a tentpole like The Hunger Games, you date it, and the sea parts. Everyone gets out of your way," says one veteran studio executive. "Otherwise, pick your poison."

Ultimately, Frankenweenie might have been too eccentric to attract a huge crowd, but nearly every box-office observer agrees it would have fared better had it not been overshadowed by Transylvania, a huge hit that bowed to a record-breaking $42.5 million and then, the next weekend, easily fended off Frankenweenie by collecting another $27.1 million. Even Sony's own Here Comes the Boom got caught in Transylvania's wake when it opened Oct. 12 to a disappointing $11.8 million while Transylvania took in $17.2 million. While Boom became Kevin James' lowest-grossing wide release, insiders defended opening the films in such proximity, arguing that even though both are family movies, Boom was aiming for older kids.

While no studio likes to be the first to blink, they are becoming quicker to shift dates to avoid a pileup. This summer, Lionsgate pushed The Expendables 2 back a week to avoid an action showdown with Universal's The Bourne Legacy. And Paramount delayed The Dictator's release by several days to get out of the way of Warner Bros.' Dark Shadows.

Independent films are even more vulnerable to dating woes because the major studios command the best dates. So players like Lionsgate, Open Road, FilmDistrict, Relativity and CBS Films are often forced to release their movies during crowded off-peak months.

This fall, the box office has been especially volatile because of the crush of new releases. Heading into the Oct. 12 weekend, which boasted five new offerings, Lionsgate worried that Sinister's opening would be cannibalized by CBS Films' dark comedy Seven Psychopaths because both movies were going after males. But the $3 million Sinister, a horror pic fully produced and financed by Blumhouse Productions and Automatik, was the victor, grossing a better-than-expected $18 million. Psychopaths struggled, opening to an underwhelming $4.2 million from 1,480 locations. The movie, a fall festival darling that won over critics and nabbed an A CinemaScore from audiences, hopes to get a second chance when it expands to more theaters Oct. 26.

The weekend of Sept. 21 was just as fierce, with End of Watch (Open Road), House at the End of the Street (Relativity), Dredd 3D (Lionsgate) and Trouble With the Curve (Warners) all duking it out.

Dredd debuted to an anemic $6.3 million, one of the worst openings of all time for a comic book adaptation, which stunned many considering the positive buzz it generated at Comic-Con in July. Says executive producer Adi Shankar, "Initially, Dredd was opening against Killing Them Softly, but when that moved off the Sept. 21 date, you had these other movies like Trouble With the Curve and End of Watch moving in."

Shankar, who became involved with the project when he brought the remake property to financier Reliance Big Entertainment -- which spent $44 million to make the movie with partner IM Global -- would have preferred for Dredd to open during the Aug. 31 weekend opposite Lawless. But Lionsgate already had grabbed that date for The Possession, a film it owned. And as other movies moved to Dredd's date, "day by day," says Shankar, "I saw the Dredd audience evaporate piecemeal."

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