WORD OF MOUTH
Wednesday is the new Friday in movie releases
Midweek releases are replacing the old sneak preview, and the strategy is working.
FULL SPEED AHEAD: Sony is releasing Pineapple Express, starring Seth Rogen, left, and James Franco, today to get buzz heading into the weekend. (Dale Robinette / Columbia Pictures)
Between now and Labor Day, the major studios and several independent distributors will release more than half a dozen new films on a Wednesday, usually considered one of the slowest days of the week for moviegoing.
Although this week's national Wednesday premieres -- Sony's "Pineapple Express" and Warner Bros.' "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 " -- are opening two days early in part to avoid the start of the 2008 Olympics, the midweek theatrical openings are largely designed to maximize positive buzz so the new releases can hit Friday with a full head of steam. Among smaller movies opening on Wednesdays are this week's "Bottle Shock" and "Sixty Six."
"We think our movie plays really, really well," says Chris McGurk, whose Overture Films will release Don Cheadle's terrorist drama "Traitor" on Aug. 27 in order to get a jump on the Labor Day holiday. "We just believe releasing it on a Wednesday before a four-day weekend is like having a rolling sneak preview."
Says Jack Foley, the distribution chief for Focus Features, whose comedy "Hamlet 2" will move into wide release on Aug. 27: "You get a lot of positive word of mouth going into the weekend. You have two days of people validating the movie locally."
While "The Dark Knight's" summer receipts are so stunning it's not a fair predictor of any other movie's performance, the Batman sequel's midweek numbers have shown that moviegoers will flock to the multiplex on days other than the weekend.
In breaking so many box-office records (on Monday, it became the fastest film to surpass $400 million domestically, doing so in 18 days), "The Dark Knight" has sold more than $8 million in tickets every weeknight except Monday (when it grossed $6.3 million), with its earliest midweek nightly grosses topping $20 million.
Thanks in part to so much midweek attendance, total summer grosses are up about 1% from last year's vacation season, when domestic ticket sales hit a record $4.16 billion. Total summer admissions, however, are down more than 3% from last summer, with the higher grosses driven by an average national ticket price of $7.16, according to new data from the National Assn. of Theater Owners.
Some distributors say the summer's overall returns -- coupled with the consistent midweek revenue -- suggest that some people hurt by the struggling economy are going to the movies rather than taking off on vacations.
"It's a sign that people are not only picking movies as the weekend choice for entertainment but also in the middle of the week as well," says Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Sony moved up the release of "Pineapple Express" from Friday to Wednesday for several reasons: to avoid the Olympics, separate itself by a week from next Wednesday's "Tropic Thunder" (which Paramount and DreamWorks previously moved from Friday, Aug. 15, to Wednesday, Aug. 13) and generate early heat for its R-rated stoner comedy.
Like many of the movies opening on Wednesdays, "Pineapple Express" is a crowd pleaser likely to spark enthusiastic praise from early ticket buyers. "No one would ever release a movie on a Wednesday if they didn't have a movie that really played," Blake says. "You don't want to risk the weekend if you have a movie that doesn't."
One of the hidden benefits of the Wednesday premiere is specific to risqué comedies like "Pineapple Express" and "Tropic Thunder."
"The hardest genre to market is the R-rated comedy," says Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore, "because you can't show the movie's funniest moments on television."
Distributors say Wednesday openings -- especially late in the summer, when kids are starting to return to school -- actually boost, rather than cannibalize, weekend grosses.
In deciding to release "Hamlet 2" in 100 theaters on Aug. 22 (a Friday) before taking it to 1,700 theaters on Aug. 27 (a Wednesday), Focus looked at the performance of its "Vanity Fair" in 2004 and "The Constant Gardener" in 2005, both of which opened on Wednesdays and did strong business before the weekend.
"Wednesday is not a dead day at any time of the year, frankly, because of what it can do for your film," Foley says. "You get a lot more money on the Wednesday and Thursday of that first week than what you would get on the following Wednesday and Thursday. And I would rather get as much of my money up front then let the movie play out week after week."
Similarly, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" maker Warner Bros. looked at the Wednesday premieres of Disney's "The Princess Diaries 2" in August 2004 and "Freaky Friday" in August 2003 and saw that a film appealing to girls could do strong business following a midweek launch; both Disney films grossed more than $95 million domestically.
"It just makes your weekend even stronger," says Jeff Goldstein, Warners' executive vice president of domestic distribution. The first "Pants" film opened on a Wednesday in 2005 as well, and while it was not a runaway hit (grossing more than $39 million domestically), the film did sell a ton of DVDs.
For nostalgic fans of Hollywood marketing, the Wednesday premiere appears to be killing off a long-standing sales tool: the sneak preview.
In years past, studios would present special screenings of a few movies with broad audience appeal every year, usually a week or two before premieres. But because the sneaked film hadn't yet opened, the revenues for those previews were attributed to whatever film was playing in that auditorium. And now that word of mouth can spread at light speed, their timing has grown obsolete -- the Wednesday opening now makes more sense.