Want to watch a big movie, opening this weekend? Go see “Titanic,” the 20th anniversary of the biggest hit in the past 35 years, in a special-event rerelease in 87 AMC Theaters. Beyond that, you’re out of luck. The weekend also sees multi-hundred theater expansions of two initially strong specialized titles: Greta Gerwig’s New York Film Critics winner “Lady Bird” (A24) and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (Fox Searchlight). We’ll also see domination by holdovers like “Coco” (Disney), “Justice League” (Warner Bros.), and the surging “Wonder” (Lionsgate).
Otherwise, the seven top distributors, which provide about 90 percent of the annual box office, took a pass. And next week sees only one new wide release, when the beleaguered Broad Green takes advantage of the brief availability of screens to launch senior-citizen caper “Just Getting Started.”
This seems bizarre on the surface — aren’t we in one of the most-competitive windows of the year? — but the logic is sound.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is here already
Although the latest “Star Wars” episode is two weeks away, its competitors know that with a projected $200 million+ opening, it may as well have opened now. Unless a film has a strong alternative audience (such as 20th Century Fox’s hopes for its animated “Ferdinand”), no studio is going to fight the biggest domestic franchise going.
That also extends to films that open the week or two before, since theaters will give as many screens as possible to “The Last Jedi.”Tickets are already are on sale for “Jedi,” many at premium prices, which can discourage the budget conscious from other moviegoing. Competing films with the best chance of holding on are those that can rebound over the holidays.
It’s not the most wonderful time of the year
Some companies once took advantage of low-volume release dates post Thanksgiving to push out lesser titles. Today, the reality is most of the public is distracted by shopping, school events, parties, and other holiday events. And ads for upcoming Christmas releases may seem much more appealing than what’s on offer, so it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. As movies fall lower among the public’s priority list, studios back away.
Distributors pay a premium for an off season
Even in a new-release vacuum, costs to market and deliver movies remain the same. There are no bargains for media buys — retailers are spending like crazy to reach the same eyes studios want. Why spend good money chasing lower returns?
The holidays are brutal
Starting December 22, it’s survival of the fittest in a buyer’s market. The number of top titles trying to open and stay on screens is never higher, and weak-performing openers are nearly certain to get the axe. Most films prefer to have at least some chance of playing beyond one or two weeks. And with November films they hope to extend through Christmas, or top priorities later in the month, an early-December release becomes a hassle they don’t need.
Thanksgiving came too early
When Thanksgiving falls on its earliest-possible dates, November 22 or 23 (the latter this year), it creates an extra week of problematic play in December. When Thanksgiving falls later (November 27 or 28), product volume tends to rise slightly.
They remember “In the Heart of the Sea”
Two years ago, Universal bet they’d have a good-enough opening and then get a head start on other Christmas releases. Instead, the flop of this $100 million Ron Howard adventure starring Chris Hemsworth is best remembered for the warning it provided to others. An easy #1 on December 11, its $11 million was disappointing but not disastrous. In its second weekend at over 3,000 theaters, it dropped nearly 70 percent. And instead of holding on to reap much-needed holiday bounty, it lost all but 685 theaters, with many playing only partial showtimes. The film ended up with an awful $25 million domestic total. That’s a Christmas story no one wants.