H'wood explodes big bang theory

4,000 playdates is the new 3,000

Boxoffice Preview on page 65.

Welcome to silly season.

Despite regular hand-wringing over rising costs in Hollywood, there's an area where almost everybody agrees that the escalation has been simply foolish, and yet few choose to buck the summertime trend: megawide movie releasing.

A few years ago, industryites were laughing about the mine's-bigger-than-yours fight to get more than 3,000 playdates for tentpole films. And by last summer, 4,000 was firmly established as the new 3,000.

That number is unlikely to creep much higher even for this summer's most important releases, but only because there aren't any more suitable venues to add to the mix. In fact, distribution executives are starting to grumble over being pressured to show films in substandard venues just to get the extra playdates.

"I don't like showing movies on the sides of barns," cracked one distribution wag.

Paramount's "Iron Man" is sure to be the next picture to unspool with 4,000-plus engagements when the comic book actioner launches the boxoffice summer May 2. With major releases playing on three or more screens in many multiplexes, the actual screen count for the Robert Downey Jr. starrer could see a screen count twice as big as its playdates.

Interestingly, if "Iron Man" plays well throughout May, that might make it tough for the studio to reach the 4,000-theater benchmark with its May 23 tentpole, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Knowledgeable industryites realize that would have zero impact on how the Indy sequel bows, but it could make for some awkward conversations between Paramount brass and the film's helmer, Steven Spielberg.

"Directors will ask for 15 things on a picture — more money, final cut, so on and so on," a studio executive said. "The one time you can answer their demands with a 'yes' is when they say they want to open their picture as big as possible. And that's why it goes on."

Meanwhile, even the broad rollout of digital distribution won't make these extra print costs go away anytime soon. That's because studios have agreed to pay "virtual print fees" on such releases to help fund the installation of digital projection equipment in movie theaters.

So figuring on an average cost of, say, $1,000 a print, the difference between a 2,500-engagement release and a 4,000-theater run can represent $1.5 million misspent. Multiply that by dozens of summer tentpoles, and it starts to add up to real money.

Yet even contrarians on megawide releasing acknowledge there's a range of foolishness that can be ascribed to such outlays.

In relative terms, megawide releasing makes the most sense for family films. Such films play so broadly that even the smallest theater in the tiniest town might prove just lucrative enough to book for opening weekend.

"With PG family films, there's no town too small to play," one distribution executive said. "And in bigger markets, you want even the smaller neighborhood theaters because you can gross enough with those to pay for the print (with family films)."

Indeed, R-rated films will never see such megawide levels of release because the smaller, monoscreen theaters need to program their venues for the broadest appeal.

"If you do it just to do it, it usually doesn't pan out," Disney distribution president Chuck Viane said of the megawide trend. "You need to have a movie that's perceived by the public to be worth it for it to pencil out."

Still, there's the understandable psychological pressure on distribution executives from the sudden realization that just about every movie released in the summer will be a one-week wonder at best because of the crush of wide releases entering the marketplace week after week. So the prospect of padding opening grosses from additional playdates — however minimally — becomes more of a why-not proposition.

"It's just gotten so much more competitive that if you don't get it early on, you're not going to get it," a distribution insider shrugged.

And for the foreseeable future, that will make 4,000-theater openings as much a part of the summer scene as picnics, beach outings and, well, big movie openings. But the trend toward ever-wider bows actually traces back to the mid-1980s, when "saturation" releasing in 2,000 or more theaters first came in vogue.

Nielsen EDI data shows TriStar Pictures' "Rambo: First Blood, Part 2" as the first film to open above that level, debuting with 2,074 engagements on May 22, 1985. But just before that, Paramount opened "Beverly Hills Cop" in 1,534 venues on Dec. 5, 1985, then expanded the Eddie Murphy blockbuster to a total 2,006 theaters by Christmas.

The first film ever to bow in more than 3,000 playdates was Paramount's "Mission: Impossible," unspooling in 3,012 locations on May 22, 1996.

DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek 2" was the first film to unspool in more than 4,000 playdates, when it debuted on May 19, 2004, in 4,163 locations. There were five films that opened with 4,000 or more engagements in the summer, starting with Sony's "Spider-Man 3" on May 4 (4,252 playdates) and running through Warner Bros.' July 11 opener of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (4,285).

"When you're talking about pictures like that with (prints and advertising) budgets of $50 million to $60 million, what's another million dollars in print costs to try to get another million gross?" a distribution executive mused recently. "They always say the smallest part of the P & A is the P, and that's still true."