Originally created 01/08/98

Jockeying for position



LOS ANGELES -- Sure, it's a long time away. But Hollywood studios really want you to start making your July movie plans now.

That's July 1999.

With a larger share of movie tickets sold on a film's opening weekend than ever before, the long-standing game of show business scheduling has become a Hollywood obsession. Like grizzlies marking territory in the tundra, the movie companies are staking out critical spots on the movie calendar, hoping to keep adversaries away. Some studios are even trying to lock up dates almost two years in advance.

Nowhere is the plan-now or pay-later strategy more evident than in this year's lineup. Some of 1998's most anticipated films -- most notably Godzilla and Armageddon -- selected key summer weekends long before their actors stepped before the cameras.

"You want as much time as possible to stake a claim to the date," says Rob Fried, one of the executive producers of Godzilla.

The update of the rampaging-reptile movie seized May 20 as its debut more than a year ago, and the meteor thriller Armageddon, which is far from finished, is already circulating T-shirts emblazoned with the premiere date, 7-1-98.

The strategy is partly driven by the rapid evolution in how movie tickets are bought. In 1993, a typical movie in wide release made about 29 percent of its total gross in its first weekend. That zoomed to more than 37 percent in 1997. So, if a movie doesn't have a spectacular debut, it's unlikely to make a profit.

With some 150 major movies released annually, it becomes essential to enjoy as much clear sailing at the theaters as possible, particularly in the summer.

In a bluff-filled round of poker, some companies throw their chips on certain dates and pray all rivals will fold: The makers of a movie appealing to teen-age boys, for example, don't want the core audience to have six movie choices.

"You stake out dates hoping people will stay away," says Walter Parkes, who co-heads DreamWorks' motion picture division. "It's a very strange game."

DreamWorks circled July 10 for its film Small Soldiers, a story of toy action figures who come to life and start a real war. Problem is, Small Soldiers had a late production start and has been delayed by dozens of script rewrites. Filming is expected to last until early spring, meaning DreamWorks will have little time for all the planned animatronic and computer effects.

Mr. Fried says he wants to make a war drama for 1999. But the production is so complicated he realizes the film can't be ready for Memorial Day. July 4 will have to do.

"Picking a date and working backward seems to be a smart way to do it, even if it proves you can't make the date you want," he says.

He may not have that far-off July weekend to himself, though. New Line Cinema wants to open its horror film Jason vs. Freddy on the same day.

No matter how fast filmmakers race, sometimes there isn't enough time to make a planned release date.

Titanic was supposed to come out in July, but writer-director James Cameron wasn't finished, so the release was pushed back to December.

This year, several films won't be ready as originally envisioned: Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt, has been moved from June, perhaps the year's most competitive month, to as late as November or December.

Among the 1998 releases are several films once scheduled to open in mid- or late 1997. Mask of Zorro, which was to have faced Titanic in December, is now set for July 24. Peter Weir's The Truman Show, once due in the fall, is now set for June 12. Primary Colors, the adaptation of journalist Joe Klein's novel on national politics, will debut March 20, several months later than first considered.

"We decided quite early, way before shooting, that we wouldn't make Christmas, and thank God," says director Mike Nichols, who guided a cast headed by John Travolta and Emma Thompson.

"There's such a rush to Christmas, and it's terrifying. You can be trampled. (Now) there might be a week, maybe two or three weeks, when you're not being trampled by five other juggernauts," says Mr. Nichols.

Filmmakers who don't have to race to make release dates can also test their movies extensively. The strategy is especially helpful to comedies, since directors can see which jokes get laughs and which don't.

"I get to do what I most like to do -- refining it," says Mr. Nichols.

Great Expectations, a modern overhaul of the Charles Dickens novel, was moved from December to Jan. 30. With the later date, the movie, starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, no longer qualifies for the 1997 Academy Awards. The good news it also no longer risks being lost in the endof-the-year madness.

"First of all when they told me (the release date was moved) I was bummed," says the film's director, Alfonso Cuaron. "This has been a very long process, and I just wanted to be over with it. But then, after seeing Titanic, I was glad we weren't in their wake. We are not the iceberg that will sink that movie."

Certain 1998 movies are helped as much by concept as release date. The better -- or more marketable -- the idea, the easier time a film will have cutting through the clutter.

DreamWorks doesn't have to worry too much about the other early June movies: It has Saving Private Ryan, a D-Day drama starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg. Nevertheless, the new studio claimed a June date early last year.

"There's so much noise all through the summer months," says DreamWorks' Mr. Parkes. "So it's critical to provide something that stands out."

Other movies have to rely on familiarity, not stars or director. Lost in Space stars William Hurt, not Mr. Hanks, and was directed by Stephen Hopkins, not Mr. Spielberg. So the movie's name -- an old TV show -- becomes the biggest hook. And also its biggest liability.

"Our job is to position the film as a modern, not tongue-in-cheek, film with real life-and-death situations," says Mitch Goldman, president of New Line's marketing and distribution division. By opening in early April, Lost in Space won't have to go toe-to-toe against vehicles with bigger stars.

Art films typically refuse summer dates -- they cannot compete with studio marketing budgets. Yet last summer Ulee's Gold and Her Majesty Mrs. Brown both performed surprisingly well. Consequently, Fox Searchlight will release Cousin Bette, an adaptation of the Balzac novel starring Jessica Lange, on June 26, clashing with Nicolas Cage in Snake Eyes, the X-Files movie and a film based on television's The Avengers.

"We think Cousin Bette will be infinitely more interesting in comparison to the summer films," says Lindsay Law, Fox Searchlight's president. "We wouldn't be nearly as distinctive in the winter as we will be in the summer."