Specialty units put on the sun screens

New strategy: fall movies, summer releases

After last fall's crush of specialty titles, distributors are trying the unconventional: releasing fall movies in the summer.

Last fourth quarter, extra-crowded boxoffice weekends led to almost unprecedented cannibalization. Prestige dramas including "The Kite Runner," "Atonement" and "There Will Be Blood" all opened in late December, competing fiercely with one another and making things even tougher for more modest fare.

Sony Pictures Classics, whose animated feature "Persepolis" was among the specialty releases slugging it out last holiday season, is taking a different tack with a few films that might ordinarily be found in fall or later. SPC is releasing some of its biggest 2008 bets starting Memorial Day and will stage platformed campaigns throughout the summer.

Among the fall-like films set for SPC's summer slate: The Sino-Japanese drama "Children of Huang-Shi" (May 23), British literary adaptation "Brick Lane" (June 20) and Sundance award winner "Frozen River" (Aug. 1).

Elsewhere, Miramax's "Brideshead Revisited" -- Julian Jarrold's feature take on the Evelyn Waugh novel -- is about as classic a fall title as one can get, but the Disney specialty unit is opening the period piece in late July. Paramount Vantage has its youth-oriented documentary "American Teen" set around the same time, and Fox Searchlight will debut Clark Gregg's dark comedy "Choke" -- one of its biggest releases this summer -- in August.

Some specialty films always unspool in the summer, and Searchlight successfully opened "Little Miss Sunshine" during that period in 2006.

"Once you get past the tentpoles and the all-audience movies at the beginning of the summer, there's a real appetite for more adult movies," Miramax marketing chief Jason Cassidy said. "In the fall, there are four or five movies going for the same audience every weekend, and it's hard to break out no matter how good your movie is."

There will still be plenty of prestige movies this fall, including Sam Mendes' "Revolutionary Road," Gus Van Sant's "Milk' and Clint Eastwood's "Changeling." Yet there's a pervasive sense that distribs would do well to avoid the seasonal logjam -- though that logjam may automatically free up with the just announced dissolution of Warner Independent and Picturehouse.

Still, giving up on a fall slot means losing proximity to awards-consideration season, but some execs say that's not a big problem.

"There's a recognition among distributors that it's OK to release award-caliber pictures any time of the year," Lionsgate theatrical topper Tom Ortenberg said. "You don't have to shove them all in the fourth quarter."

Lionsgate is one of the pioneers of the counterprogramming strategy, releasing specialty films outside of fall, as it did with the March opening of "Away from Her" last year. Ortenberg and others point to the best actress race last year in which leading contenders Julie Christie and Marion Cottilard starred in non-fall pics.

Counterprogramming means just that, however, so if too many companies try it the ploy doesn't work.

Execs also stress the need to work smart.

For instance, it's sometimes useful to wait until the earliest summer blockbusters play out; but wait too long to open and you're too deep into August, when swaths of the media go on vacation and many of the shows that could be used to promote a movie go dark.

Execs in short will keep a close eye on which dates work and which don't.

"Fall will move to summer, and in a few years you could have people saying, 'Let's go back to fall," one exec quipped.

That -- or there will be some really, really serious movies in February.