The Hollywood movie studios, about to enter the most crucial time of the year for ticket sales, are being forced to delay the Mexico releases of their big early-summer movies, including "Star Trek," "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and "Angels & Demons" as theaters there close because of the swine flu epidemic sweeping the country.
Such a delay could cost the studios tens of millions in revenue at a time when they are increasingly relying on international box office to offset production and marketing expenses. Mexico ranks in the top 10 movie markets, accounting for about 6% of foreign ticket sales. It could also undercut the performance of movies when they eventually open in theaters by giving pirated DVD copies a chance to flood the market.
Despite widespread piracy -- bootleg titles are sold openly on the streets for about $2 apiece -- Mexicans are heavy consumers of U.S. films that receive wide distribution in Mexico's roughly 4,000 movie theaters, particularly in large national chains such as Cinemex.
"Mexico is a big market -- especially when we're coming into this time of year," said Jack Ledwith, senior vice president of international distribution for Universal Pictures, which will delay the May 29 release of "State of Play" to June 12. "This is definitely having a big impact on moviegoing in Mexico, and I don't think we know yet what the ramifications it will have for Hollywood." Ledwith said one of the big problems with the studios' pushing back releases is that it causes "a domino effect," forcing studios to scramble for new release dates that have already been set aside for other movies. "It's a big struggle where to put all these films."
The summer moviegoing season, which kicks off this weekend with "Wolverine," is crucial for the studios because it can account for 40% or more of annual box-office revenue.
Studio executives with movies set to open in May said they had all delayed their releases and were closely following the situation in Mexico. Although the Mexican government says it plans to reopen theaters May 6, it will depend on how long it takes to contain the epidemic. So far, the flu has been cited as the "probable" cause of death for 159 Mexicans.
Twentieth Century Fox canceled its April 29 premiere of "Wolverine" and plans to push back the film's release to May 14 -- although that date remains fluid. Fox also has the sequel "Night at the Museum 2" set to open May 22.
"We're in a wait-and-see position, and we're most concerned about the containment of the flu," said Hilary Clark, head of international publicity for Fox. Clark said that on Monday, Fox sent home all of its international staff in Mexico City and shut the office.
Paramount Pictures delayed the May 8 opening of "Star Trek" and, according to a studio spokesperson, has not yet determined an alternative date. Sony Pictures had planned to release its "Da Vinci Code" follow-up, "Angels & Demons," on May 15 in about 700 theaters and "Terminator Salvation" on June 4. "We're looking at both films and reevaluating," said Jeff Blake, Sony's head of worldwide marketing and distribution.
Warner Bros. has pushed "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," which was to debut on about 250 screens, from May 8 to June 12.
"This is obviously a very fluid situation, and dates could change based on current events as well as how competitive dates line up," said Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, Warner's international distribution president.