Studios Stick to Movie-Release Plans
HOLLYWOOD (Variety) – Dithering over U.S. war plans has left film distributors between Iraq and a hard place: Moviegoing could take a hit, but there’s little that can be done to alter release plans for the next couple of weekends.
Executives at the four studios with wide releases slated for Friday are clearly concerned. But they’re pressing ahead in the absence of any apparent means of retreat.
“Advertising has been running for weeks, so we’re committed to it,” Artisan distribution general Steve Rothenberg said.
Artisan is set to launch “Boat Trip, a frothy comedy starring Cuba Gooding Jr. that could pose a surreal contrast to 24-hour newscasts of military action if an attack on Iraq occurs this week.
The weekend’s other openers include Disney’s family cartoon”Piglet’s Big Movie,” Miramax’s flight attendant farce “A View From the Top, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and the Warner Bros. horror thriller “Dreamcatcher,” based on a Stephen King novel.
“Dreamcatcher” is tracking the strongest and would be touted to gross in the high teen millions without the prospect of war.
“We don’t know how we will be impacted, but there’s the possibility that if we go to war we will see some residual effect at the box office,” allowed Warner Bros. exec VP of distribution Jeff Goldstein.
Off-the-record conversations with various execs make it clear queasiness runs high for several reasons:
— Post-9/11 anxiety may leave Americans unwilling to frequent public venues in tense times.
— Big news events often prompt cocooning in front of home TV sets.
— Postponing releases could be both costly and counterproductive if the war doesn’t start this week.
“We looked at the early ’90s and some other similar times to see the impact from these situations,” said DreamWorks distribution boss Jim Tharp, whose Chris Rock comedy “Head of State” opens March 28. “There’s (usually) an initial negative impact. But after that, it seems that people get tired of watching the news, and there seems to be a positive impact.”
So, depending on its timing, an attack on Iraq could either boost or topple “Head of State” at the local multiplex. That would be a helpful insight if only Tharp had a hotline to the White House war room — which he doesn’t.
“There’s not even a contingency plan to move the film at this point,” Tharp said. “The advertising has already started, and we’re pretty much tied to the date.”
Meanwhile, there’s little evidence of major concern that any of the pending releases have content deemed inappropriate for times of war.
MGM’s “Assassination Tango,” set to bow in a half-dozen locations March 28, involves a hit man’s assignment to kill an Argentine general. But whether or not that plot parallels current events in any meaningful way, the studio has little choice but to stick to its guns with release plans.
TOUGH TO ALTER PLANS
“Once you start your campaign and sink money into it, it becomes counterproductive to move,” MGM distribution head Erik Lomis explained.
Paramount bumped the sci-fi adventure “The Core” from a Thanksgiving slot to allow for more special-effects work. But it seems very unlikely that it will move the film from its current March 28 berth.
Disney also is firm with its weekend bow for “Piglet’s Big Movie.”
“We haven’t looked at it at all,” Disney distribution president Chuck Viane said.
A survey by ad group Universal McCann and online researcher Insightxpress recently looked at how consumers pull back from spending in times of war and recession. Some 42 percent of respondents said they’d reduce moviegoing, while 32 percent would curtail home-entertainment viewing.
“There’s a potential for a big distraction,” mused Tom Borys, president at box office tracker Nielsen EDI. “But every circumstance is different, so it’s hard to project what exactly will happen.”
For instance, moviegoing was robust over the weekend following the outbreak of bombing in Iraq in 1991, Borys noted: “Home Alone” ruled the roost with $11 million over its 10th weekend, and the session marked a 19 percent uptick from the previous weekend. Then, when ground troops entered the Gulf War on Feb. 23, box office declined 27 percent over the Feb. 22 weekend from the previous Presidents Day session.
Studios Stick to Movie-Release Plans