Movie Scheduling: Method To The Madness

So how do certain movies end up on certain weekends? There is an art and a science to the scheduling of approximately 150 wide-releases each year. This is the first in an occasional look at the scheduling of movies — part background, part history, part explanation, and a dose of skepticism and critique.

This weekend is a perfect example of movie scheduling in North America. Three movies open on April 1 from three different studios representing three different genres and audience segments. Universal’s Hop (a comedy with a mix of animation and live action) goes after the kid and family audience, while adults are targeted by Summit’s sci-fi thriller Source Code and horror fans are the bulls-eye for movies 123 newcomer FilmDistrict’s Insidious.

Launching a wide-release movie is an expensive proposition, usually around $50 million in marketing costs. With each new release, studio prestige is on the line, careers are at stake in front of and behind the camera, and most of all, studio marketing and distribution departments need to maximize the return on investment of a film that cost $50-150 million to produce (in most cases but sometime more, sometimes less). With all that in mind, the same studio does not release two movies against each other the same weekend, and even more important, each studio assiduously avoids releasing one genre against a similar genre from another studio.

It’s really quite simple at its core. Why launch a big action movie the same weekend as another studio’s big action movie? The same goes for animation, serious dramas, horror, or any genre one can name. Why, a studio executive would ask, would we be dumb enough to split the audience of a particular genre if we don’t have to? The executive might continue, it’s not like we are as dumb as the TV guys who routinely schedule similar shows against each other. Touché, Mr. Movie Executive. We’ll leave that for another column.

When three different genres open against each other, the industry maximizes the chance that each one could succeed and avoids the likelihood of mutually assured destruction.

So how did Hop end up on April 1? First, its theme naturally places it near Easter. Since Easter is late this year, that puts the movie somewhere in April. Next, DreamWorks has had great success launching family films this time of year (How to Train Your Dragon opened 3.26.2010 with $44 million and Monsters vs Aliens opened 3.27.2009 with $59 million), but that studio did not repeat this strategy, providing an opening for Universal. Next, this weekend two years ago was extremely lucky for Universal, which shocked everyone by opening Fast & Furious with $71 million on 4.3.2009. Don’t underestimate the power of precedent and patterns. And then there’s the upcoming Fox release of the animated Rio, as Mitch Salem notes in his Hop review.

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