When Paramount announced a few weeks ago that The Wolf of Wall Street would be pushed back until Christmas due to runtime and “trimming” issues, The Best Man Holiday was left as the only wide release slated for a November 15th debut. The departure of a new Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle surely meant another equally high-profile or even several smaller-profile releases would be flocking to the date. Prime candidates were Homefront and Oldboy, both hard-R difficult sells which appeared destined to get lost in the Thanksgiving shuffle; Delivery Man, too, could have gotten out of the gate a week earlier to beat The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s impending box-office hurricane; or perhaps George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, which would undoubtedly have attracted a similar audience as Scorsese’s film, but instead retreated to a 2014 release date. Conspicuously, no studios were willing to bump their films into the slot.
The only thoughtful explanation for these trepidations is that no studio dared sandwich one of their films between blockbuster juggernauts like Thor: The Dark World and Catching Fire, with the pair looking to gross a combined $250 in their opening weekends. Fair enough, yet clearly Paramount originally showed no real concern with offering up a prestige, $100 million film in this slot, but even their refusal to shuffle Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit forward to the date is baffling, especially considering the recent press generated by Tom Clancy’s death.
What happened, it appears, is that studio heads have become so frightened by mega-budget franchise entries that even relatively empty weekends aren’t convincing enough bait to make a switch. Seriously FilmDistrict? You don’t have the confidence to pit Oldboy against a 14-years-after-the-fact sequel to a minor hit because you’re concerned about the second weekend of a super-saturated Marvel entry that doesn’t directly involve the names Iron Man or The Avengers? Instead, FilmDistrict has announced a meager 500-theater opening on November 22nd for the Spike Lee joint, with little indication if further expansion will follow. The same goes for Open Road and Homefront: How would this bizarro Jason Statham/James Franco actioner not be better suited as the highest-profile release of this weekend, rather than opening on far less screens against much stiffer competition?
Studios are proving themselves hilariously inept at navigating their own financial mazes, especially when faced with such no-brainer moves as this; clearly, a film like Thor: The Dark World has been constructed as disposable entertainment, which hinges upon an über-saturated opening-weekend gross; a word-of-mouth hit this will not be. Thus, once the opening-weekend hoopla resides, the marketplace opens back up and is accepting of new material, so long as it’s a worthy product. Were these studio heads to read Justin Wyatt’s 1994 book High Concept, they would gain a better sense of the ways cultural product can operate in the marketplace—namely the economic miracle of product differentiation. Moreover, the frame for films to make money in North American theaters has considerably shrunken over the past 20 years, with many yanked from theaters before even a full month of exhibition: All the more reason to put faith in the viability of counter-programming. Instead, onlookers can only sit back and shake their collective heads as Oldboy and Homefront will likely make only a third of what each could have if these studios understood the rules of a depleted marketplace. Bah-humbug.
Box Office Weekend Predictions
1. Thor: The Dark World: $39.4 -54%
2. The Best Man Holiday: $22.2 NEW
3. Free Birds: $8.4 -24%
4. Bad Grandpa: $7 -39%
5. Last Vegas: $6.8 -38%
6. Gravity: $6.1 -28%
7. 12 Years a Slave: $5.9 -12%
8. Ender’s Game: $4.5 -56%
9. Captain Phillips: $4.4 -28%
10. About Time: $2.8 -41%