NATO's John Fithian: Hollywood, Fix the 2014 Movie Calendar (Guest Column)

Issue 1 BIZ 2014 Movie Calendar Illustration - H 2013
Ryan Inzana

Issue 1 BIZ 2014 Movie Calendar Illustration - H 2013

Can a blockbuster launch in October? "Gravity" did, argues the top advocate for theater owners, who pleads for a year-round schedule of tentpoles.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It's that time of year when, if you still actually use paper calendars, you pull the tack out of the wall and pin up the new one. Changing the calendar leads me to think of the movie release calendar. Anyone who has heard me speak knows that I advocate on behalf of theater owners for a pattern of releases that encompasses the entire year. It makes no sense to me that Hollywood distributors mark off particular times of year as no-go zones for major theatrical releases. That practice serves only to tell our audiences to stop paying attention at certain times of the year -- and that benefits nobody.

The past year is a perfect illustration of the perils of this practice and the promise that a more creative approach to scheduling can bring.

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Following a record box-office year in 2012 and a strong increase in admissions, 2013 began in the doldrums by comparison. The shocking first-quarter drop-off mainly was driven by a lack of family-friendly movies in the marketplace. In 2012, there were 26 wide releases between the first of the year and the first weekend in March: Nine of those were rated R; 11 were rated PG-13; four were PG; and two were rated G. In 2013, by comparison, there were 22 wide releases over the same period: 13 were rated R; eight were PG-13; and one was PG.

Fewer wide releases, a dearth of family titles, and by the end of the quarter box office was down by 12 percent.

The second quarter told a better tale, up 7.7 percent year-over-year, mainly on the strength of Iron Man 3 and Fast & Furious 6. Those two hits show that a once-risky strategy has become an accepted practice: Summer starts at the beginning of May, nearly a month earlier than the old Memorial Day launch.

Summer, too, illustrates the value of smart scheduling. I needn't remind you of 2013's doomsaying prophecies from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who bemoaned the perils of an all-or-nothing tentpole strategy. Nor do I need remind you that at least eight summer blockbusters went bust (in relation to their budgets) on the heels of that prediction.

I might need to remind you that as those stories predicting the death of the Hollywood studio model were being written, from June 14 through July 18, domestic box office passed $300 million weekly five straight times -- something that had never happened before. The summer would go on to set a record with $4.75 billion in domestic grosses, and attendance would reach levels we hadn't seen since 2007. Grosses for the full year also will set records.

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But the pundits had a point: Several big movies underperformed, and the reason might very well have been too many titles aimed at the same audience. Consider the animation glut: Monsters University, Despicable Me 2, Turbo, The Smurfs 2 and Planes all opened between June 21 and Aug. 9. Only two of them topped $100 million domestically. Could they have made more money in a less-crowded September or October?

On the other hand, counterintuitive programming can deliver strong results. Woody Allen is now a summer staple. Blue Jasmine opened in late July and grossed $33 million domestically, following the success of To Rome With Love and Midnight in Paris in June and May of their years.

Films targeting specific demographics also should be sensitive to the crowded marketplace. The Spanish-language Instructions Not Included pulled in $44.5 million, a fraction of its Mexican gross but an eye-opener in the U.S. Lee Daniels' The Butler grossed $116 million in late summer, and 12 Years a Slave opened to critical acclaim and had grossed nearly $40 million by Jan. 1 despite speculation that large audiences would not turn out for "African-American films." Another movie starring African-Americans, The Best Man Holiday, opened to $30 million in mid-November. But then Black Nativity struggled in a more crowded marketplace, and perennial box-office winner Tyler Perry disappointed with A Madea Christmas compared with his usual openings. Diverse movies are welcome and should be scheduled on a year-round slate.

Indeed, one movie in 2013 demonstrated the benefit of a robust 12-month calendar. Gravity dominated October, opening with a spectacular $55.8 million during the month's first weekend. It had grossed more than $250 million domestically by Jan. 1 and led to breathless amazement that -- shock! -- a tentpole-style movie could open in October. No surprise here -- I agree.

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But while Gravity was pulling in millions of dollars, the rest of the box office suffered. Revenue was down from the third week of September through the fourth week of October compared with 2012. What Gravity proves, though, is that the audience is there -- no matter the time of year -- if you have something great to offer.

November, too, was weak in comparison with 2012, only pulling ahead with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. To be sure, there were some strong titles that have performed well and remained in theaters for a long time, but too many weeks of the calendar remain unfilled. Frozen opened and held strongly though the Christmas season, providing the one element that was missing at the holiday box office in December last year -- a high-grossing animated family title.

In fact, the Christmas holiday was strong overall. It likely helped that studios moved some promising titles out of the intense competition of the last weeks of the year. I see this as good news, with those moves opening up the possibility of a better January and February. March, which has seen hits like How to Train Your Dragon, Alice in Wonderland and the first Hunger Games, has attracted big titles. So I am optimistic about the first quarter.

We have seen our studio partners experiment with new paradigms for wide releases: Can we start summer in April? Let's open Christmas presents in October. I've got a big calendar hanging on my wall. Let's see if we can fill it.

John Fithian is president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners.