Forget about this summer’s talk of sequelitis slowing down box office: This fall could wind up being a bloodbath with as many as 34 wide releases battling for marquee space before Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them propels us into the holiday play period.
By the time four expected wide expansions occur this season, autumn’s wide entries will number 37 – four more than last autumn and 10 more than 2013’s 27 releases. All of this creates an atrocious environment where four-quad films could capsize the B.O. potential of serious awards contenders, with few titles succeeding and casualties abounding.
“This happens every year,” said one distribution czar, verbally throwing his hands in the air about how too much product on screen impedes pics’ holdover opportunities. “You’d think we learned.”
Last autumn, wide releases were at a five-year high, with domestic ticket sales for the period from Tuesday after Labor Day through Thursday before Thanksgiving falling to $1.6B, -9% from 2014. Only four films crossed $100M (The Martian, Hotel Translyvania 2, Spectre and The Peanuts Movie), down from five in 2014 and six in 2012.
But it gets worse. There were arguably 15 misfires at the domestic B.O. within a two-and-a-half-month frame, and none of them were sequels: The 33, By the Sea, Burnt, Crimson Peak, Everest (stateside), The Last Witch Hunter, Our Brand Is Crisis, Pan, Jem and the Holograms, Rock the Kasbah, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Steve Jobs, Suffragate, Truth and The Walk.
While we’ve written about how all boats can potentially rise whenever there’s a big film in the marketplace, that isn’t necessarily so during the early fall when teens-to-early twentsomethings are back in school, and there’s a smaller audience available. Prior to Spectre’s first weekend last November, 20th Century Fox’s The Martian ($228.4M) was seen as the only wide release that was vacuuming up moviegoers’ money. Studios have to wait until the last two weeks of the year before they open a film that potentially legs out to 8x its opening.
Word among both exhibitors and distributors is that we’re bound to see more changes on the fall calendar following the Toronto International Film Festival. Depending on how well films are received at TIFF, distributors will either change up their release patterns (as we saw last year when Universal moved Legend from Oct. 2 to the pre-Thanksgiving frame) or pull them off the schedule entirely (read, last year’s transgender drama About Ray).
Looking at this fall’s schedule, there are some weekends where four to five wide releases will compete against each other. Some distribution chiefs argue that in such crowded cases ‘There’s something for everyone, each film appeals to a different demographic’, but in the case of Oct. 21-23, there are currently five movies scheduled to clash: Paramount’s Tom Cruise title Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, 20th Century Fox’s Keeping Up With the Joneses, Lionsgate’s Boo! A Madea Halloween, Universal/Blumhouse’s Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Pure Flix’s Columbine tragedy teen drama I’m Not Ashamed. Originally, there were six films opening on Oct. 21, but Focus Features today announced it’s moving fantasy drama A Monsters Calls to a limited Dec. 23 launch with a 1,500-wide break on Jan. 6, given the buzz it’s expected to generate at the fall festivals.
Says one tracker, “Releasing five films against each other is never a situation appealing to different demographics, it’s a recipe for cannibalization.” Of those pics in play that weekend, industry trackers project at least a $20M opening for the Jack Reacher sequel which is going after older men (the last one drew 60% guys, 76% over 25) with Keeping Up With the Joneses eyeing upscale audiences in the vein of Date Night. Trackers believe that the Jon Hamm-Gal Gadot-Zach Galifianakis spy comedy could potentially be the surprise hit of the fall despite a current forecasted debut in the high teens. While it makes sense that Ouija 2 is planted here – horror films have to go a week before Halloween – it’s anyone’s guess why distributors decided to pig-pile on top of each other over Oct. 21-23. There’s only 13% K-12 schools off and 5% colleges. If there’s any prime day before Thanksgiving it’s Friday Nov. 11, when a little more than half of all K-12 schools are on holiday break in addition to a third of all colleges on break.
In sum, in addition to Oct. 21-23’s five releases, four out of 10 fall weekends will see four wide releases, starting promptly during the Sept. 9-11 frame after Labor Day. Typically the weekend following Labor Day is a dead zone at the box office. In 2014, none of the major studios didn’t even dare to open anything, resulting in that year’s lowest weekend at the B.O.: $66.2M. But this year, Warner Bros. believes it has the goods to jumpstart the fall and awards season with Clint Eastwood’s Tom Hanks film Sully about Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who successfully made an emergency landing in the Hudson River after his aircraft struck a flock of geese. Opening weekend forecasts for Sully lie in the $20M range. Going right after Labor Day and grabbing all those adults hungry for prestige award fare is a distrib tactic that Warner Bros. executed brilliantly in early September 2011 when they opened Steven Soderbergh’s virus thriller Contagion to $22.4M and legged out a 3.4x multiple of $75.7M.
Many argue that the titles that suffer the most in an autumn logjam such as this are awards season contenders, many of which are adult-skewing dramas that sleep their way to higher multiples. The big chain theaters are notorious for kicking a low-grossing adult drama out -which could conceivably do more business down the road – for a flavor-of-the-weekend wide release that only has a two-week lifespan on screen. But one exhibition chief tells Deadline, “Those studios and indie labels that have those types of movies are very bright when it comes to the specific theaters they need to play in order to survive through Golden Globes and beyond.”
The blueprint for success with these prestige platform releases is to start slow and keep it tight in a small amount of runs during the early part of the autumn, with plans to pop later in the year. Platforming can be expensive and often nerve-wracking for some distributors. Otherwise, prestige pics platform and go wide very quickly. That can also be risky as we saw with Universal’s Steve Jobs last year, which despite putting up excellent respective per theater averages of $130K and $25K, disappointed in its wide break with $7.1M at 2,493. In hindsight, Jobs was a title meant for metropolitan markets, not Middle America.
Among those fall titles that will rally this season, hands down, everyone points to Disney/Marvel’s Doctor Strange, which could easily debut to $50M-$60M according to non-Disney estimates. RelishMix reports that the Benedict Cumberbatch movie has the largest social media universe among those titles hitting the screen before Fantastic Beasts with 92M. Doctor Strange video elements are being passed around at an enormous rate of 46 to 1 (the average is 10 to 1).
Rivals have MGM/Sony’s Denzel Washington-Chris Pratt western reboot The Magnificent Seven opening as high as $50M with a social media universe of 69M and overall video views at 22M. While it’s not expected to break opening records, RelishMix sees Warner Bros.’ Ben Affleck crime thriller The Accountant making a decent dent at the B.O. thanks to its similar 69M sized SMU, viral video rate of 2o to 1 which the social media monitor says “is very strong with only two trailers dropped so far with good view counts.” Even though Universal/DreamWorks’ The Girl on the Train boasts a social media universe of 29M and a viral rate of 10 to 1, many do expect this chick lit adaptation to post around $30M in its first weekend, despite some naysayers in distribution exclaiming, “It’s not Gone Girl”. Similar debuts are expected from Lionsgate’s Mark Wahlberg action thriller Deepwater Horizon on Sept. 30 and Sony’s Inferno on Oct. 28.