Hollywood's Calendar Clog-Up: What's Behind a Rush of Mystery Movies

Hollywood's Calendar Clog-Up - H 2014
Illustration by: John Ueland

Hollywood's Calendar Clog-Up - H 2014

Marvel vs. DC? That's just the beginning as more than 20 superhero pics head to theaters by 2020 and a studio "pissing contest" hits comical heights

This story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Hollywood always has played its version of the dating game, announcing release dates for big movies as early as two years in advance. But suddenly studios have upped the ante, plopping dozens of "untitled" projects on dates until 2020 so no studio knows quite what its rivals are up to. "It's a pissing contest," says box-office analyst Phil Contrino. "I don't think it's great for the industry as a whole. You want to see diversity in the release calendar instead of everything being scooped up for tentpoles."

Indeed, the sudden craze to fill the calendar is fueled by an unprecedented arms race among animation and superhero empires: Marvel vs. DC; the X-Men vs. Spider-Man universes; Pixar vs. DreamWorks Animation (and now Lego movies). It's about courting fans with hints that known characters soon will be back onscreen while also reassuring Wall Street that studios have long-term (read: predictably profitable) plans for exploiting their most valuable properties.

So, nearly overnight, the release calendar from 2016 to 2020 has become jammed with a record 17 untitled superhero movies -- not to mention another 21 untitled animated tentpoles. Fox thought it was on safe ground in March when it dated an untitled superhero title for July 13, 2018. But then, in July, Disney swooped in and claimed July 6, just one week earlier, for an untitled Marvel pic. One movie likely will have to move, just as Warner Bros. shifted Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice from May 6, 2016, when it was set to go head-to-head with Marvel's Captain America 3, to March 25.

Contrino gives Warners high marks for its willingness to release the sequel to Man of Steel during Easter weekend, a first for a superhero tentpole. "There will be far less competition," he predicts. Although some characterized the move as Warners kowtowing to red-hot Marvel, the studio positioned it as part of a larger game plan. Revenue from Time Warner's film business fell 2 percent over the past year, and on Aug. 6, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes promised to "mine DC [Entertainment]'s catalog" to properly leverage its franchises. Later that day, Warners began populating its superhero universe by reserving dates for a somewhat comical nine untitled DC movies while specifying dates for J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter spinoffs, beginning with 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. "It's the new way of doing business," says Warners distribution chief Dan Fellman. Sources say the DC movies will include Justice League, Wonder Woman, Shazam with Dwayne Johnson and Aquaman.

Not to be outdone, Disney now boasts seven untitled Marvel movies through 2019 and another seven animation titles, and while it has dated two Star Wars movies — beginning with Episode VII on Dec. 18, 2015 — it has at least three more in the works. "It's one thing for Disney to do it because it is batting a thousand. For the rest, I don't know," says one rival, concerned that Hollywood is counting its chickens well before they hatch.

In summer 2013, animated movies reached a saturation point and several suffered, and the looming flood of superhero pics looks even more daunting. Three comics movies are set for 2015: Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man from Marvel and Fox's The Fantastic Four. But in 2016, the number rockets to six, followed by seven in 2017 and another six in 2018. "Making really good movies will allow you to think less about what is around you competitively," says Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis, who successfully opened Marvel titles Captain America: The Winter Soldier (April) and Guardians of the Galaxy (August) outside the usual summer corridor. "It also guarantees that people will show up for the brand."

Still, claiming a date so far out can become problematic. Before The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was released in May, Sony boldly circled 2016 and 2018 dates for the next two films. But when the sequel topped out at $708.2 million worldwide, less than the $757.9 million of its 2012 predecessor, Sony was forced to abandon those dates, instead setting the spinoff The Sinister Six for November 2016. It became a cautionary tale and a signal that a release date does not equal a movie. "Planting flags is nice and all, but what really matters is big box office," says BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield. "To me, dating is secondary to quality."