Wednesday, August 6, 2008

When is a trend not a trend? (re - Wednesday openings)

John Horn of The LA Times has a piece up now basically trying to make a 'trend' out of the fact that a few late summer films are choosing to open on Wednesday rather than Friday ('Wednesday Is The New Friday in Movie Releases'). In the next two weekends, Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants 2, Pineapple Express, and Tropic Thunder will open on Wednesdays instead of Fridays.

First of all, Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants opened on a Wednesday on June 1st of 2005, so Warner Bros is following the pattern that worked last time. Actually, 2005 was the summer where non-Friday openings were rather commonplace. The three most anticipated movies of the summer - Revenge Of The Sith, War Of The Worlds, and Batman Begins all opened on Thursday or Wednesday. And, even of those three, Batman Begins was the only stand out. July 4th movies, such as War Of The Worlds, always, ALWAYS open on Wednesday or Tuesday and live-action Star Wars movies have never opened on Friday (I have to add 'live action' because the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars actually opens next Friday).

The other two entries are comedies, the kind of things that open occasionally on Wednesday to give word of mouth a chance to spread. There's Something About Mary opened on Wednesday, July 15th 1998 and came in third place over the Fri-Sun portion (against weekend 01 of Mask Of Zorro and weekend 02 of Lethal Weapon 4). It's solid five-day number coupled with incredible word of mouth propelled the film into the rank of the leggiest film of the year (it reached number one on its eighth weekend on the way to a $175 million final gross).

To be fair, Horn is right when he states that R-rated comedies can benefit from word of mouth spreading about gags too raunchy to put in a trailer. As it is, the most likely reason to open on Wednesday for these three movies is fear of the Summer Olympics, which start Friday. Spreading your opening weekend out theoretically gives audiences more of an opportunity to see the movies in question without missing their favorite event (prevalence of DVR recording technology not withstanding).

Oh, and using The Dark Knight's Wednesday grosses to declare that Wednesday is a healthy weekday is like saying that the success of LeBron James means that all teen basketball players should try to get into the NBA straight from high school. Horn basically states this and then makes an example out of The Dark Knight anyway.

Point being, this is just another case of someone noticing two or three of something and deducing that it is a trend that has something to say about the state of entertainment. Remember back in early 2006, when more than one film journalist wrote an article on the 'trend' of high school film noir. Their examples? Brick - a movie that no one saw and Veronica Mars - a (great) TV show that no one watched.

It is worth noting that this is the rare summer where only two of the major tent polers are opening on a non-Friday. And, again, both fall into established patterns. Indiana Jones films always opened on Wednesdays and part 4 opened on Thursday (for Lucas, Thursday is the new Wednesday as it's the international release day and thus helps combat piracy). Hancock was a July 4th tent pole film and those, always open on Wednesday or Tuesday.

Compare that to even last summer when Live Free Or Die Hard, Transformers, and Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix all opened on Wednesday or Tuesday on three consecutive week. But each film had their own specific reason for doing that. Live Free Or Die Hard wanted to get out of the way of Transformers, which was opening the very next Tuesday (with Monday night 8pm screenings). Harry Potter 5 wanted a few more breathing days before the book release of Harry Potter 7. And Transformers was a July 4th monster. Also, Transformers had balls of steel (no pun intended) and decided to use a Tuesday opening (with Monday night advance screenings) to get the entire week of July 4th holiday time to crank in cash. It was a huge risk as the demand could have flamed out by Friday, but it paid off with a colossal 'opening week' figure ($155 million over 6.5 days looked a lot better than $70 million over three-days).

Point being, if you think your film is good and you think you can weather a lesser three-day take for a higher five-day total, then open your film on Wednesday. But, if you're a tentpoler that is expected to open huge regardless, it might not be in your best interest. Sometimes, a higher five-day number actually results in worse press than a smaller three-day opening would have garnered.

The most obvious example is Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace in May, 1999. Switching to Wednesday somewhat close to the last minute (officially, to give hardcore geeks a chance to see the film and not crowd out the family audience over the weekend), Phantom Menace failed to break the three-day opening weekend record, instead cruising to $105 million in five days. It did $64 million in the Fri-Sun portion, number two at the time. Point being, at the time, it took a lot of heat for not breaking the three-day record regardless of the fact that it had set a five-day record. Not until it collected another $66 million over four days on its holiday second weekend did people stop complaining (I remember thinking - $200 million in 13 days - now it's acting like a Star Wars film). Had it opened on Friday, it would have easily clobbered the Lost World's $72 million three-day record (a three day take of $85 million would have been plausible) and there would have been no hand-wringing in the least.

Ironically considering the current box office charts, the $73 million five-day for Batman Begins, coupled with an underwhelming $48 million three-day would have looked a lot more impressive as a simple $60 million three-day opening weekend had they chose to just open on Friday (sounds like Warner got the message this time around). At the time, I was so shocked by the under performance of the three-day portion that I feared for the future of the franchise. Another example is King Kong, which had to fend off negative press over a $8.9 million opening Wednesday, never mind that it out grossed the three day portion of Fellowship Of The Ring ($66 million five-day, $50 million three-day). For the record, all three of these films had legs and ended up being financially profitable, but oddly only Batman Begins didn't have to fend off stories of 'under performance' in the mainstream media.

And, for the record, had Shrek 2 opened on a Friday, it could have easily converted its $125 million five-day (a mere $19 million of that before Friday) into something besting Spider-Man's $114 million three-day. I remember being shocked that Shrek 2's opening Wednesday ($10 million) was less than the opening Wednesday for Pokemon The Movie ($10.5 million) back in November 1999. Lesson - if it's a movie that people can wait till Friday to see (like King Kong and Batman Begins), do not risk negative exposure for poor weekday numbers by opening on a Wednesday.

As I've stated previously, there are several movies that came out between Spider-Man in May, 2002 and Pirates Of The Caribbean 2 in July, 2006 that I believe probably would have broken the three-day opening record if they had come out on Friday. The Matrix Reloaded, Return Of The King, Passion Of The Christ, Spider-Man 2, and Revenge Of The Sith - all would have likely made a claim on the Spider-Man number had they opened on Friday.

Of course, as I've also mentioned before (and, not to brag, but boy did this early May article turn out to be dead on), the biggest factor of Wednesday openings is the 'Godzilla Rule'. That of course means that, if your film is a steaming pile of crap, DO NOT open on a Wednesday (and certainly don't schedule advance-night Tuesday screenings for goodness sake). I was at a Tuesday night Godzilla screening with several friends and believe me, by the time Friday rolled around, everyone knew. Same goes for the tragic five-day openings of Superman Returns and The Matrix Revolutions. If your film is bad, do not open on a Wednesday.

Scott Mendelson

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