Winter Heat

Studios eye summer-like returns in chilly months

Three years ago, Universal was in a bind. The studio was about to release "White Noise," a thriller with no youth-friendly stars, negative critical buzz and a supernatural hook that horror fans were likely to find familiar.

Universal seemed to confirm the skepticism when it slated the movie to open during the first weekend of January, long considered a graveyard for studio releases.

But the film scared up $24.1 million that weekend on the way to almost $60 million domestically, a cushy return of nearly six times its production budget. And more importantly, it might have marked a turning point in distribution thinking, one that culminated with last weekend's monster $46.1 million bow for Paramount's "Cloverfield."

With smart positioning and clever marketing, films with general-audience appeal are now hitting summer-style numbers in even the cruelest winter months. And even highly ranked studio execs are beginning to wonder whether they should rewrite the entire release playbook.

"The conventional wisdom is that if you have a big movie, you put it out in the summer," Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore says. "But what we've seen is that it's not as simple as just a big movie."

Instead, Moore argues for a more nuanced understanding of potential blockbusters. "There are two kinds of big movies," he says. "There's the 'Transformers' kind of big movie, with so much awareness that you're trying to hit everyone — and you need the summer for that.

"But there's another kind of big movie, the one that has a lot of potential but needs a leg up," he adds. "That's what most movies are, and those are the movies that, if you release them in a less obvious time, you can make them seem bigger than they really are."

In other words, an unorthodox release date isn't just a neutral factor — it's an active advantage.

That thinking certainly paid dividends for "Cloverfield," a $25 million thriller that likely will become one of Paramount's most profitable hits of the year. And Paramount isn't alone in scheduling bigger movies in traditionally smaller months. There are eight bona-fide top boxoffice contenders (some of them surprisingly big-budget productions) coming out in the next two months, and across a striking number of genres: from a $75 million sci-fi thriller (Doug Liman's "Jumper," from Fox); to a star-laden comedy (New Line's Will Ferrell sports satire "Semi-Pro"); to a new children's franchise (Paramount/Nickelodeon Movies' "The Spiderwick Chronicles"); to this weekend's Lionsgate revival of the "Rambo" franchise.

When all is said and done, 2008 could prove to be not just the biggest trial for out-of-season releasing, but a tipping point that one day might be viewed in distribution circles with the same reverence as the advent in the 1970s of the summer blockbuster.

Release strategy is both simple and complicated. To find the right weekend, a studio must evaluate which date will draw the largest number of moviegoers among a target audience and which date has the fewest competing movies pitched against it.

That's the simple part. The trick is knowing how much of one factor to sacrifice for the other.

For years, release strategy has grown more entrenched. Everyone in the movie biz knows that certain seasons are propitious for certain films: fall for specialty releases, spring and summer for big studio plays, winter for the forgotten.

But an examination of boxoffice data reveals a recent shift. A $100 million-grossing film has opened in January or February in four of the past five years. And among the top 30 domestic earners last year, five came out in the first quarter: Warner Bros.' $210.6 million domestic grosser "300," Paramount/DreamWorks' Will Ferrell comedy "Blades of Glory" ($118.6 million), Sony's comic book adaptation "Ghost Rider" ($115.8 million) and Disney's star-laden "Wild Hogs" ($168.3 million) and animated "Meet the Robinsons" ($97.8 million) — all the types of films studios regularly slate during the warmer months.

By contrast, in 2002, only two of the top 30 came out in the first quarter.

During the five years since, a funny thing has happened in the film business. With increasing frequency, movies that otherwise should have worked got slaughtered in their supposedly optimal season, while movies that had no business working flourished out of season.

The specialty divisions, particularly Fox Searchlight, started successfully tinkering with spring and summer, even for such big bets as "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Waitress." And now, quietly but steadily on the studio side, movies are being released (and raking in money) months away from when the conventional wisdom says they should be.

Take Sony Pictures. The studio has had a major hit in January or February in each of the past four years: "50 First Dates" in 2004 ($120.9 million ); "Hitch" in 2005 ($179.5); "The Pink Panther" in 2006 ($82.2); and "Ghost Rider" in February.

"You don't have to say 'I need to have one date' any more," says Rory Bruer, president of distribution for Sony Pictures. "You have to focus on the movie itself and what's the best place for that movie to succeed. And that could be in any month of the year.

Part of the push toward unorthodox release dates is simply a function of the so-called crowded-weekend effect: Studios, eager for less competition, are striking out for more far-flung calendrical terrain.

But the newly diverse dates also give rise to some tempting, even subversive, questions. What if, instead of being about the month or the season, a movie's success is more dependent on broader, nonseasonal cultural factors? What if the conventional wisdom is wrong and the business has experienced a more fundamental transformation of the public's appetite for film?

In short, what if we're heading toward a distribution world where seasons barely matter?

It's not that the logic of the tentpole has gone away, of course. The summer blockbuster, which was birthed with such movies as "Jaws" (1975) and "Star Wars" (1977), still exerts the most powerful force on how big-budget movies get released.

But rather than being the final word on release logic, seasons might be one point on a still-evolving continuum. Instead of certain dates being off-limits for a given movie, often, in fact, the counterintuitive date might be the smartest one.

"Seasons will always play a role because summer is when kids are out of school," says Sony's Bruer. "But everyone is far more open to the opportunities in other months. "

One might assume that the increase in viable release dates has stemmed from a decreasing relevance of opening-weekend grosses. Paradoxically, execs say, the move toward opening major films on unconventional dates is a direct result of the industry's fixation on a film's first-weekend take.

"Increasingly, it's open huge, drop and be gone," Lionsgate president of theatrical films Tom Ortenberg says. "You only get one week, and that's why you can't afford to have that week be so crowded."

Part of the season agnosticism also is fueled by the new wave of self-financed startups that are seeking to make studio-level movies without necessarily having the marketing budgets to push out competing films on the supposedly choice weekends.

Overture CEO Chris McGurk, whose startup delayed its first three releases — including the femme comedy "Mad Money" and the art house drama "Sleepwalking" — from the fall to the winter, says that he made a deliberate decision to target the first quarter.

"There's resistance to it, but ultimately people will realize it's a good thing not to have movies stacked on top of each other," he says. "That way you're guaranteeing there are going to be losers, and why would you want to do that?"

There are also more hidden causes, like DVD releases. With windows continuing to shorten, the summer-blockbuster-into-the-holiday-DVD could soon become a lot less of a factor.

And home video experts say that with the retail biz consolidated and shelf life at mass merchandisers getting shorter, a DVD release is much more like a theatrical one. It needs breathing room as well, which in turn pushes DVD releases out of the clogged fall and then wags the dog of theatrical releases into the winter.

"There are no off-weekends in the movie business anymore," says Ortenberg, summing up the sentiment of many forward-thinking execs. Instead, there are just weekends and films — and a conventional wisdom that might be anything but wise.