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Mayday! Too many movies too soon

By STEVE PERSALL
Published May 7, 2004

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[Photo: 20th Century Fox]
Opening Memorial Day weekend: In The Day After Tomorrow, New Yorkers run for their lives as a tsunami floods the streets during a catastrophic climate shift.

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[Photo: Universal Studios]
Opening today: Van Helsing, the story of a 19th century monster hunter, includes Josie Maran as Dracula’s bride, Marishka, terrorizing a village.
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[Photo: Warner Bros.]
Opening next week: In Troy, Brad Pitt’s Achilles leads the Greek forces in a siege of Troy.
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[DreamWorks Pictures]
Opening May 21: In Shrek 2, Shrek (voice of Mike Myers) and Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) return from their honeymoon to find Donkey (Eddie Murphy) eagerly awaiting them.

Welcome to summertime, Hollywood-style. No matter what the calendar reads, or when solstices occur, it's barely May and the movies are operating as if everyone is out of school and on vacation.

Today's release of the horror adventure Van Helsing is the latest example of a studio jumping the fun on its competition. A few years ago, such an expensive (reportedly $170-million) popcorn flick loaded with special effects would have been Fourth of July weekend material. Now it's just the first salvo of a month loaded with big guns.

Next week brings an even more expensive film, Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, that reportedly cost $175-million. The week after, Shrek 2, a relative bargain at a reported $120-million, will lure moviegoers. Memorial Day weekend's release of The Day After Tomorrow, a $100-million disaster flick, closes the month with blockbuster potential.

That's four movies costing around $565-million. Extra costs for advertising will total about 25 percent of that amount, on average. That means nearly $700-million in tickets sales must be shared for those movies to break even. (Of course, any shortfalls can be recouped in the international market, home video and product tie-ins.)

But here's the rub: The U.S. film market has rarely sold that many tickets in a month, even in the lucrative summer and holiday seasons. Those films, especially The Day After Tomorrow with its last-weekend-in-May debut, won't have much chance to build momentum before Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban arrives June 4.

Some studio - perhaps all four May contenders - will be crying Mayday soon, victims of Hollywood's pack mentality. Some observers thought Warner Bros. was crazy to release Twister on May's second weekend in 1996, when schools still were in session. Then the tornado adventure grossed $41.1-million on its opening weekend, a total of $242-million in the United States alone, and other studios saw dollar signs.

Still, Twister's success was viewed by some as a fluke, a summertime movie that got lost and somehow prospered. Then in 1997 an unassuming May thriller called Breakdown became a hit, convincing studio decisionmakers that audiences wanted escapism weeks before summer vacation.

May wouldn't be merely a dumping ground for uninspiring or just plain bad movies anymore. Studios took turns being the first bully on the block, taking everyone's allowance at the box office for two or three weeks, then deferring to a bigger bully on Memorial Day. In 1998, Deep Impact made nearly $100-million before Columbia Pictures' Godzilla took over. The next year, The Mummy cleaned up until Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace landed. Gladiator opened in May 2000 with three solid weekends before Mission: Impossible 2 debuted. The Mummy Returns and Pearl Harbor shared May 2001. In 2002 it was Spider-Man and Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones.

Last year's aces were X2: X-Men United and The Matrix Reloaded. But a wild card also paid off, setting the stage for this year's May megaplex traffic jam. Jim Carrey's comedy Bruce Almighty made it a threesome with an $85.7-million Memorial Day weekend opening, convincing studios that more than two could play this game.

But how many more?

Only four weekends are in the month, and Hollywood learned a few years ago that blockbusters butting heads on the same release date isn't good business. Yet, neither is finishing second or lower in the box office, especially on a movie's first weekend.Troy would suffer that fate if, say, Van Helsing still had everyone's attention from the weekend before. Image is everything in these affairs, and not finishing in first place is losing.

Nothing, not even the Olsen twins in New York Minute, will overshadow Van Helsing this weekend, with a PG-13 rating opening the door to young ticket buyers. Troy is a dicey proposition, losing much of its potential audience with violence that earned it an R rating. Not every gory epic can be The Passion of the Christ. Troy has the most to lose, reduced chances of gaining, and a green, family-friendly ogre right behind. Even with a PG-13 rating, The Day After Tomorrow will find similar problems tucked between Shrek and Harry Potter.

Somebody is going to lose, and it may be moviegoers. Surveys indicate that the majority of U.S. moviegoers attend two or three films on average per month. The logic by extension is that one or two of this month's releases will be skipped. If all four of May's blockbusters - or a handful of other releases - are worth seeing, moviegoers are bound to miss something worthwhile. When June, July and August roll around, those films already may be fodder for home video.

It will take only one major May flop for studios to reconsider how far they can stretch this trend. They won't stop making big-budget spectacles; they'll just tinker with the summer season's starting date a little more. With so much riding on May, can April be far behind?

- Steve Persall can be reached at 727 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 6, 2004, 09:44:40]


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