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The movie dating game

So much depends on a film's opening weekend that studios are reaching as far ahead as three years for the best timing.

March 19, 2007|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

Jeff Blake's day on Nov. 7, 2008, is already spoken for.

That Friday, the Sony Pictures Entertainment executive will open another James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig, who four months ago debuted as the British spy in "Casino Royale."

Which is about all Blake knows. As of today, there's no finished script and no title beyond the generic "Bond 22." In fact, some of the teenagers he hopes to entice with Bond's signature action and suaveness aren't even teens yet.

But, Blake said, "two things are definite: Daniel Craig is returning, and we're going Nov. 7. After that it gets complicated."

In the pressure-cooker world of opening movies, studios are reaching as far as three years into the future to grab first dibs on the most desirable weekends.

With an average of nearly 12 movies opening every week, claiming prime big-screen real estate as far in advance as possible is crucial. Studio production and marketing costs have soared past $100 million a movie on average. How a film performs on its opening weekend at the box office can determine whether the studio turns a profit.

And studios increasingly rely on corporate partners such as fast-food chains to shoulder promotional costs and to sell movie-themed merchandise. Those partners can require two years to craft campaigns and products.

May 4's "Spider-Man 3," which is loaded with such tie-ins, was scheduled a full three years in advance, during a conference in 2004. Sony's promotional partners on the sequel include Burger King, General Mills, Kraft, Activision and Hasbro. DreamWorks Animation SKG last fall snagged Nov. 20, 2009, for its young-Viking fantasy "How to Train Your Dragon."

Complex special effects, such as creating a believable Sandman for "Spider-Man 3," also can necessitate working years ahead.

In its strategic moves and inevitable showdowns, the film dating game can resemble chess, poker or chicken.

Paramount had planned the Jack Black wrestling farce "Nacho Libre" for last June 2 -- until Universal plunked its romantic comedy "The Break-Up," starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, onto the same date. So Paramount delayed "Nacho Libre" to June 16, when it opened instead against Universal's street-racing sequel "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift."

"We had to ask ourselves whether it made sense to open against another comedy -- albeit one that skewed a little more female -- or against an action movie that felt more urban and ethnic and had less star power," said Rob Moore, Paramount's president of worldwide marketing and distribution.

The shift paid off: "The Break-Up" was a hit, but "Nacho Libre" and "The Fast and the Furious" both drew enough young fans to also be profitable.

In Hollywood jargon, the scheduling practice is known as "planting the flag," which gave rise to the term "tent poles" for the biggest films. The competition is keenest when it comes to these costly movies, as each studio seeks ideal launch dates such as holiday weekends.

Few had obsessed about release dates before opening weekends became so crucial to the industry's economics. Two horror comedies, "Ghostbusters" and "Gremlins," opened the same day in 1984, and both clicked.

In July 1998, Warner Bros. turned heads by taking out trade newspaper ads claiming 1999's Fourth of July weekend for its Will Smith movie "Wild Wild West." The studio was warning rivals to find other dates for their summer flicks. Its movie turned out to be a dud.

For their tent poles, studios can pitch camp and expect rivals with similar projects to steer clear. But with most films they look for a cushy weekend with little competition -- a task complicated by the fact that everyone has the same idea.

Another strategy is to "counter-program," such as opening a film aimed at women the same weekend an action movie being marketed to youths premieres. Last June, 20th Century Fox launched the hit "The Devil Wears Prada" two days after "Superman Returns" opened.

When two major films aimed at the same audience are on a collision course, the question is whether studios will blink. If one does, a chain reaction can result.

New Line Cinema scheduled "The Golden Compass," a $160-million fantasy in the style of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, for Nov. 16 of this year.

But when Paramount picked the same date for Robert Zemeckis' version of the fantasy epic "Beowulf," New Line switched to Dec. 7.

"Our picture is going to be huge," said David Tuckerman, president of New Line Theatrical Distribution. "And I'm sure they feel the same way. It would be dumb to keep them against each other."

Sony then moved its fantasy "The Water Horse" off Dec. 7, ultimately landing it on Christmas.

Tuckerman keeps track of the competition on a white, 4-by-6-foot "war board" on his office wall. It shows every release over the next 16 weeks.

"I see danger behind every tree," he said.

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