Between Labor Day weekend and Sept. 19, the Santa Monica film outfit will introduce the spoof “Disaster Movie,” the Nicolas Cage crime thriller “ Bangkok Dangerous,” Tyler Perry's melodrama “The Family That Preys” and Kate Hudson's romantic comedy “My Best Friend’s Girl.” And each one will play in more than 2,000 theaters. No company in the last decade has released so many consecutive movies so widely, Lionsgate says.
And before the mini-major can catch its breath, it will unveil in October Bill Maher's satirical documentary “ Religulous,” Oliver Stone's presidential biography “W” and the horror sequel “Saw V.”
With four other movies coming out before the year's end -- including Dec. 25's “ The Spirit” -- Lionsgate will be distributing more films this fall and winter than some major studios, and almost every specialized film company, touch in a calendar year. What's more, Lionsgate does it with a distribution team totaling 21 employees, far fewer bodies than studio distributors have just in their secretarial pool.
"We're really the next-generation movie studio," says Tom Ortenberg, president of theatrical films for Lionsgate. "We're not a little indie."
Five years ago, though, they were exactly that.
In 2003, Lionsgate's slate was filled with small, quality films that pleased critics but sold only a handful of tickets: "Shattered Glass," "The Cooler," "Wonderland" and "Secretary" among them. But over the last few years, Lionsgate steered away from film festival standouts (although its "Crash" did win the best picture Oscar in 2006) and toward bigger mass-appeal genre films, highlighted by the blockbuster "Saw" movies and Tyler Perry’s consistently popular African American films.
So far, the new strategy appears to be working, but at some cost. In the last fiscal year for parent Lionsgate Entertainment, theatrical box office revenues soared by 80%, totaling $451 million in domestic ticket sales. The last eight Lionsgate releases in more than 2,000 theaters -- a streak that started with last September's "3:10 to Yuma" through April's "Forbidden Kingdom" -- have opened in either first or second place.
But thanks in part to the dramatically higher movie marketing costs necessary to open those films -- Lionsgate spent $326.3 million in the recently concluded fiscal year marketing its movies, up 118% from the previous year -- the company recorded a net yearly loss of $74 million when it released its earnings in May.
Lionsgate faces several other issues:
* In a loss of both prestige and potential box office returns, Lionsgate's single highest-grossing filmmaker, "Fahrenheit 9/11's" Michael Moore, took his new political documentary, tentatively titled “While America Slept,” to Overture Films and Paramount Vantage.
* To make room for its late-season films (and to maximize the company's ancillary deals), Lionsgate has had to dump some movies once penciled in for wide release, including this month's serial killer film "The Midnight Meat Train," which opened in just 102 theaters (and grossed less than $100,000 total) before catching an express to video stores.
* Last week's planned release of the baseball movie "The Perfect Game" was delayed by marketing monies pledged (but not delivered, according to Lionsgate) to the company by a third party. The movie currently doesn't have a release date, but Lionsgate hopes to release it before October's World Series.
So the pressure is squarely on the shoulders of the upcoming Lionsgate slate. While the four-in-a-row Lionsgate movies will not directly compete against each other for the same audience -- "I don't believe we are cannibalizing ourselves in any way," says Joe Drake, the president of Lionsgate's motion picture group -- they must nevertheless fend off several other high-profile releases. "My Best Friend's Girl," for example, is opening opposite Ricky Gervais' fantasy comedy “Ghost Town” and Samuel L. Jackson's bad-cop thriller “Lakeview Terrace.”
But Lionsgate has always been particularly clever about picking release dates for its movies, proving that what passes for received wisdom in town is often untrue.
The weekend after Labor Day, for example, has long been considered a box-office graveyard, under the assumption that most children and teens are either getting ready for or just starting to go back to school -- meaning the multiplex isn't on their minds. Yet Steve Rothenberg, Lionsgate's domestic distribution president, says company research shows that as many as 90% of elementary, high school and college-age kids are already back in classrooms by Labor Day and primed to see movies.
So a year ago, Lionsgate scheduled "3:10 to Yuma" for the weekend after Labor Day, drawing loud protests from star Russell Crowe's camp, who thought it was a foolhardy date. But the western opened in first place with ticket sales of $14 million, eventually grossing more than $53 million domestically. This year, Cage's "Bangkok Dangerous" will premiere the weekend after Labor Day, "and right now, we're the only film out there in wide release," Rothenberg says.
Ortenberg says Lionsgate's move away from art-house fare was driven by a desire to increase the company's profit. "We saw that we could not grow the company by relying on more art-house movies, and we did not want to be holding the bag when the music stopped," he says in a reference to the recent struggles of indie film.
Drake says that while Lionsgate remains committed to award-worthy works, its focus for now is on films that can be narrowly, and effectively marketed, to niche audiences.
And Drake remains confident that the four straight wide releases is smart business. "I don't think it's risky," he says.