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Is 10 p.m. the New Midnight?

Late-Night Viewing

Some studios and theater owners quietly are trying to reenergize late-night business (and change distribution rules) in the wake of the Aurora shooting by opening films the night before their official release date.

Midnight openings have long played a key role in boosting a movie's overall weekend debut. Midnight openings became commonplace in 1999 after Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace and reached an apex when the final Harry Potter film whipped up a record $43.5 million at 12:01 a.m. in July 2011. Even smaller films have benefited from a midnight start. For studio marketers, there was nothing better than rabid fans lining up at midnight to build buzz heading into opening weekend.

Then the bottom fell out with the July 20, 2012, theater shooting during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo. Skittish moviegoers began choosing earlier viewing times (or staying home altogether). Most companies stopped reporting midnight grosses, and when they did, the results weren't impressive. Universal's The Bourne Legacy, opening Aug. 10, took in $540,000 in midnight runs, notably less than the $797,000 earned by The Bourne Ultimatum in 2009. (Legacy opened to $38.1 million for the weekend, well behind the previous two franchise pics.)

Then, during the Oct. 5-7 frame, late-night business came roaring back as 20th Century Fox and EuropaCorp's Taken 2 debuted to $49.5 million, the best opening since Dark Knight Rises ($160.9 million) and one of the top October numbers ever. One secret to its success? The Liam Neeson action sequel started at 10 p.m. on Thursday in what's quickly becoming a trend that's helping boost box-office traffic overall.

"We wanted to find out if opening at 10 p.m. would stimulate late-night business," says Chris Aronson, Fox president of domestic distribution. "In my estimation, it did."

Owners of theaters large and small are lobbying all the film companies to consider starting earlier on Thursday evenings. In exchange, they've agreed to treat Thursday night earnings as midnight numbers so that the money can be counted as part of a film's official weekend total. Taken 2 earned $1.5 million in "midnight" runs -- a strong number for a non-sci-fi action film -- and didn't break out the portion grossed between 10 p.m. and midnight.

A movie can live or die by its opening weekend -- perception means everything -- and studios and indie distributors obsess over every dollar.

The week after Taken 2, Summit opened horror pic Sinister at 10 p.m. (that film overperformed as well), while both Paranormal Activity 4 from Paramount and Summit's Alex Cross opened at 9 p.m. on the Thursday before their official Oct. 19 opening. Among the upcoming movies that will begin their journey before the midnight hour include Silent Hill: Revelation 3D (Oct. 26) from Open Road Films and Summit's The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 2 (Nov. 16).

Like Taken 2, Sinister also benefited from rushing out of the starting gate at 10 p.m., grossing a much better than expected $1 million in what were reported as midnight grosses. Paranormal 4 grossed $4.5 million in late-night business, less than the previous two titles but still a strong number.

Pushing back the start time to the evening before a movie's official opening date certainly isn't unheard of; Paramount in particular has been aggressive in this arena. But when other studios kept complaining, Paramount reported the $5.5 million in Tuesday night shows for Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which officially opened on Wednesday, June 29, 2011, separately from the film's first day.

But that was then.

"I don't like to open a film a day early, but if you are going to get the moviegoer who may shy away from a midnight screening, then I support it," says one studio distribution executive. "This is happening because late-night business was in the toilet."

Not all agree with the fledgling practice. An executive at another studio questions the fairness of reporting any Thursday night booty as part of the weekend, pointing out that if a movie claims to have broken a record, it won't be an apples-to-apples comparison. "You have to draw a line. We have a history of opening a film at 12:01 a.m. This isn't right," he says.

A rival executive counters: "Let me give you a baseball analogy. There used to be 154 games a year. It's now 162 games a year. When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's record for most home runs, there used to be an asterisk explaining the difference. There's no asterisk anymore. It is what it is."

For exhibitors who have locations in smaller markets, the opportunity to play a new movie at 10 p.m. means they don't necessarily have to have a midnight show at all, depending on demand.

"We'll decide on a case-by-case basis," says Bruce J. Olson, president of Marcus Theatres, which operates 54 theaters throughout the Midwest. "A 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. show makes a lot of economic sense for an exhibitor in terms of staffing and utilities, and we can attract a larger audience, particularly in the fall and winter."

Veteran distribution executive Tom Sherak says it doesn't really matter if a movie starts at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. "It's not like it's breaking the Ten Commandments," he notes. "It could even become the new norm."