Nine days after the opening of “Star Wars: Episode One, The Phantom Menace,” Universal Studios Inc. released “Notting Hill,” a romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.
The film, which appeals to the date crowd and not children or families like the saga of young Darth Vadar, has pulled in more than $50 million at the box office and is on its way to becoming a major hit.
It wasn’t by accident. “Notting Hill,” which received mixed reviews, might not have fared so well against another major romantic comedy. And similarly, a young-male-oriented film likely would have been buried in the weeks after the newest “Star Wars” installment was launched.
It’s an example of movie counter-programming, a skill that has become increasingly important as the number of major studio releases swells.
“It’s crucial now,” said Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source Inc., a company that charts box-office returns. “It means everything to have a film launch at the right time to the right audience.”
While TV networks long have employed counter-programming comedies and dramas aimed at women are often plugged in against sporting events, for example movie studios use this strategy more and more to deal with a marketplace jammed with films.
“It’s an outgrowth from television,” said Harold Vogel, a New York-based entertainment analyst. “Today, you just don’t throw out a film at random. You have to counter-program to optimize your results.”
Studios have counter-programmed in the past, but the glut of releases in the past several years has forced an acceleration of the strategy especially on weekends during the key summer months when 55 percent of all box-office revenues are generated.
“In the past, you could find a weekend when you were pretty much alone to release a film,” said Tom Sherak, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp’s Twentieth Domestic Film Group. “But you can’t find that now. Two or three movies open every weekend. If a film doesn’t open to the audience it was made for on its opening weekend, nobody will see it.”
The weekend of Aug. 13 illustrates how movie marketers analyze their likely audience demographics and launch movies that complement, rather than compete with, the offerings of other studios.
In the South and East, most schools go back into session in late August, so it’s one of the last big weekends of the summer film season. As a result, there’s a very crowded lineup of new releases on tap.
For older couples there’s Walt Disney Co.’s “13th Warrior,” an action-adventure starring Antonio Banderas and Omar Sharif, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “The Thomas Crown Affair,” a romantic thriller starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo.
For younger couples/families, there’s Warner Bros.’ “Mickey Blues Eyes,” starring Hugh Grant and Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Universal’s “Bowfinger,” a comedy starring Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy.
For teens there’s New Line Cinemas’ “Detroit Rock City” starring Gene Simmons and Edward Furlong, and Fox’s “Brokedown Palace” starring Claire Danes, Bill Pullman and Lou Diamond Phillips.
In the past, Bucksbaum said, studios would have never released so many films in one weekend. Counter-programming allows them do this by appealing to different segments of a mass audience.
“Nobody wanted to throw a film against a blockbuster like a ‘Lost World’ or ‘Mission: Impossible,'” he said. “Now, the studios are realizing that certain films, like a ‘Notting Hill,’ will play well off a major release.”
Failing to counter-program can be disastrous. Last year, three family-oriented films Universal’s “Babe: Pig in the City,” Disney’s “A Bug’s Life” and Paramount Pictures’ “Rugrats” were released at the same time. The “Babe” sequel tanked.
“You have to be very careful,” said Al Shapiro, president of domestic theatrical distribution at New Line. “You have to make sure the picture is available to the audience it was made for.”
Of course, even the best counter-programming doesn’t work if you’ve got an unappealing film. To go up against “Star Wars,” DreamWorks SKG released “The Love Letter,” a romantic comedy starring Kate Capshaw, Tom Selleck and Ellen Degeneres. So far it has pulled in a disappointing $6.2 million.
Steve Cesinger, an investment banker specializing in entertainment at Los Angeles-based Greif & Co., said counter-programming is especially needed in an age of the multiplex. Often, people will be drawn to these multiple-screen theaters hoping to see a blockbuster, but find that the shows are sold out.
Still hungry to see a film, these people need alternatives.
“People are already out,” Cesinger said. “If the guy’s action flick is sold out, he and his date will go to the chick flick.”
Moreover, not everyone will want to see the hit du jour. “People want options,” Bucksbaum said. “You can’t play ‘Star Wars’ in 14 out of 18 theaters. It’s not smart.”
Sometimes marketing chiefs don’t just counter-program against other movies, they counter-program against conventional wisdom.
The late summer and early autumn, according to accepted practice, is a time when most young men are returning to school or college. It’s not a time for an action-adventure. But last September, New Line counter-programmed against this notion by releasing “Rush Hour,” starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. By then all the summer action films had been released and were fading from the marketplace.
“It could have played any time of the year, but we had less opposition,” Shapiro said. “We knew it was a strong film, but we didn’t realize how strong, certainly not the $140 million it made.”