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Studios Face Challenges in Release Slate

9 Jun, 2005 By: Judith McCourt



Despite the record opening for Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith and the official start of the summer movie season, movie attendance so far this year is down nearly 9 percent from last year, according to Exhibitor Relations Co.

In addition, the number of films that generate more than $25 million at the box office has been inching downward over the past few years. In 2004, 95 films earned more than $25 million at the box office, according to Nielsen EDI, down from 101 in 2003. So far this year, just 34 movies have hit that bar.

With theatrical windows shortening and the latest crop of theatrical features pulling in fewer moviegoers, the DVD product lineup for the third and fourth quarters needs to be skillfully managed. Studios will be challenged to meter out new releases over the coming months, saving the best of the bunch for the height of the holiday shopping season but strategically positioning the others to draft off their theatrical marketing campaigns.

For the past two years, the top DVD sellers of the year were released the first week of November — just in time for the early holiday shoppers, but not too early to lose their zap in the final weeks before Christmas, when impulse buying hits its peak.

In 2003, Buena Vista Home Entertainment pushed Finding Nemo, the previous summer's top theatrical grosser ($339.7 million), into the retail pipeline Nov. 3 — 158 days after it opened theatrically. The positioning helped the animated blockbuster rack up record sales of 25.4 million units by year's end.

Last year, DreamWorks Home Entertainment used the same strategy to release Shrek 2, the summer of 2004's biggest box office earner ($436.5 million), on home video. Shrek 2 arrived in stores Nov. 5 — 170 days after its theatrical bow — and sold an estimated 22.2 million video units by year's end.

Industry observers believe Revenge of the Sith, the runaway 2005 box office winner so far this year (with a three-week tally of $307.9 million), is the leading contender for the lucrative Nov. 8 shelf-space slot. That would be 173 days after the film's theatrical opening — significantly longer than the 149-day average for movies with box office earnings of more than $100 million.

But what about the year's other recent theatricals? The lower the box office scores, the faster films tend to hit video. So far this year, the average video arrival date for films with theatrical earnings of more than $10 million has been a mere 135 days after their box office openings.

Some movies hit video a lot sooner. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment's Elektra and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's XXX: State of the Union each were released on video less than 90 days after they broke on the big screen.

This suggests the summer movies should start hitting the video pipeline in September and October — not optimal dates for holiday sales momentum.

But don't expect that pattern to hold. Studios last year generated 36.4 percent of their total DVD sales — a consumer spending tally of $5.43 billion — in the last three months of the year, according to Home Media Research.

So a more likely scenario is that September and early October could see a sparse slate of high-profile product, as studios opt to hold summer hits until late October, at the earliest, to attract the holiday shopper.

To fill the lean period, look for a growing slate of special editions and re-releases, such as Buena Vista Home Entertainment's just-announced trilogy of Chicago (Collector's Edition) (Sept. 13), Scary Movie 3.5 (Unrated Version) (Sept. 20) and Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (Unrated Special Edition) (also Sept. 20).

If there are gaps in the release schedule, count on the studios to figure out some way to fill them.

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