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MOVIE PROJECTOR

It's a matter of timing

Studios are clinging to weekends that have worked for them before

May 22, 2008|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

Welcome to Hollywood's summer of sequels: Not the movies. The release dates.

Steven Spielberg's “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” comes out Memorial Day weekend, just like the previous sequels to "Raiders of the Lost Ark." That follows the customary launch of the summer popcorn movie season on the first weekend in May with a movie adapted from one of Marvel's comic book superheroes. Pixar has grabbed the same weekend in late June. Will Smith is back on the Fourth of July weekend. And prolific comedy producer Judd Apatow is opening an offbeat offering in August.

As movies become more costly to produce and market, the studios are increasingly relying on release dates that have worked for the same genre, star or filmmaker. When it comes to opening dates this summer, the thinking among studio executives is if it worked before, it should work again -- and again.

"There is so much uncertainty in this business to begin with," said Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures. "If you've already proven that audiences respond to a genre at a certain time of year, why not eliminate one of the variables?"

Paramount is wagering an estimated $335 million to make and release worldwide the fourth chapter of the iconic adventure series starring Harrison Ford. Consumer tracking points to a five-day opening of $150 million or more in the U.S. and Canada alone.

Paramount and Marvel Studios set the tone this summer when “Iron Man” followed the path of other comic book superheroes by ruling the box office on the first weekend of May, the traditional start of the summer movie season. Between "Spider-Man" and "X-Men," Marvel films have kicked off four of Hollywood's last seven summers.

With that kind of box-office success, studios see no reason to second-guess what to do with upcoming Marvel movies. Twentieth Century Fox has already snagged the first weekend of May in 2009 for "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and Paramount has locked in the same date in 2010 for "Iron Man 2." This summer, Universal is releasing “The Incredible Hulk,” starring Edward Norton, on June 13 -- a remake of 2003's "Hulk," which was released a week later.

And Disney-Pixar has the animated robot comedy “Wall-E” set for the last weekend of June -- the launch pad that turned the animated rodent comedy "Ratatouille" into an international success last year. The reason: Kids in the U.S. are out of school and the movie can be rolled out overseas to take advantage of local holidays, said Mark Zoradi, president of Disney's motion picture group.

Will Smith, who had a string of effects-driven Fourth of July weekend hits from 1996 to 2002, including "Independence Day" and the "Men in Black" movies, returns to that date this summer Sony Pictures' action-comedy about an alcoholic superhero.

"I have to admit, I pride myself on picking most of my dates, but when Will Smith looks at you and reminds you that he's had some success on July 4th and then asks, 'How about July 4th?' You kind of nod and say yes," said Jeff Blake, the studio's chairman of marketing and distribution.

The third weekend of August had long been thought of as a dumping ground for likely flops because it's considered the tail end of the summer season as young moviegoers head back to school. But R-rated escapist fare aimed at younger audiences, especially comedy, has changed that perception.

After the racy Judd Apatow-produced comedy "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" from Universal became a hit with legs on Aug. 19 in 2005, Sony picked that same weekend for Apatow's racier "Superbad" on Aug. 17 in 2007.

This wasn't lost on Paramount either, which picked Aug. 15 for what it hopes will be another late-summer hit with the off-color action-comedy "Tropic Thunder," starring Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Stiller as actors in a war movie who get caught up in real combat.

"For a young person at the end of summer, you want to have some fun and forget about going back to school," Moore said. "What better than a crazy comedy?"

Studios tweak the strategy, placing a film on a neighboring weekend to a past success -- instead of the exact one -- when the marketplace warrants it.

Sony has Apatow's comedy "Step Brothers," starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, at the end of July -- only a week earlier than 2006's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" from the same team. "Step Brothers" fits on July 25, Blake says, because its chief rival that weekend, Fox's "The X-Files: I Want to Believe,” will target a different crowd: science-fiction fans.

The same-weekend trend is most obvious during the busy summer months, but it also runs year-round.

Smith has laid claim to a second calendar slot -- mid-December -- thanks to the father-son drama "The Pursuit of Happyness" from 2006 and the zombie thriller "I Am Legend" from 2007. Sony will release his romantic drama "Seven Pounds" on Dec. 12.

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