Does a studio need at least one big-budget, summer tentpole film to stay competitive?
Conventional Hollywood wisdom says yes, and when Paramount Pictures decided to shift its upcoming sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation from June 29 — mere weeks away — to next March, ostensibly for reshoots and a 3-D retrofit that would draw in higher ticket prices, that left only the distribution of DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar 3 and a Katy Perry concert film to prop up the studio’s summer.
Wall Street and box office analysts say this was an unusual move, but they also agree that abandoning one lucrative season won’t be a problem if they can make it up at a later date. Will it work? Paramount has done it before.
The evolution of that conventional wisdom is that when a studio makes money is no longer as important as if they make it.
“Distributors are starting to look at the year as a 52-week release calendar. Instead of having all the big tentpole blockbusters in the summer competing, now it’s, ‘If we can make it work in March and April, maybe we’ll make more money that way,’” says Phil Contrino, editor of Boxoffice.com. Recent examples include Universal debuting Fast Five in April 2011 and Lionsgate releasing The Hunger Games in March of this year.
Although tentpoles may be migrating to other parts of the year, summer is still prime season. 20th Century Fox just announced sequels to Rise of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men: First Class for summer of 2014, but it also dated Steven Spielberg’s Robopocalypse for April of that year — a shift from its original target in the middle of summer 2013.
More than any other studio, Paramount — whose executives were unavailable for comment — has shown a willingness to make dramatic changes when a planned release date becomes problematic, rather than stay the course toward potential trouble.
Martin Scorsese’s psychological thriller Shutter Island was poised for an award-season bow in October 2009 when Paramount bumped it back to February 2010, just two months before its was to be released. Last-minute postponements always raise questions about the quality of a film, but when it finally did come out, Shutter Island earned $294 million worldwide — usurping The Departed as Scorsese’s biggest box-office hit to date. Although critics were mixed (only 69 percent of critics gave it positive marks on Rotten Tomatoes), the date shift seemed to successfully attract the older moviegoers Paramount needed.
Studios are constantly shuffling release dates, but since Paramount’s gamble with Shutter Island paid off handsomely, executives there have made three other major moves. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was bumped from March 2012 to January 2013, reportedly to capitalize on Jeremy Renner’s improved star-power after The Avengers and this summer’s The Bourne Legacy. Brad Pitt’s zombie thriller World War Z recently shifted from the holidays of 2012 to the summer of 2013, with several weeks of reshoots set for unspecified changes.
And now comes the G.I. Joe: Retaliation switch, which will allow for reshoots to add more Channing Tatum, who has also seen his marquee value skyrocket after the hits 21 Jump Street and The Vow (with the upcoming stripper film Magic Mike potentially helping even more, instead of competing with it on the same weekend.)
GI Joe will also be post-converted to 3-D, which has proven to be a major moneymaker for studios, since those tickets are sold at a $3 to $5 premium over 2-D screenings. It will also dodge two likely behemoths – The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man — in a season when the superheroes of The Avengers were a vastly bigger draw than the military warriors of Battleship.
Having a dry summer season may be unusual, and it’s certainly not ideal, but Wall Street isn’t worried about the studio’s long-term prospects.
“It would be atypical for Paramount to largely sit out the summer,” says David Joyce, media analyst for the investment advisory firm Miller Tabak & Co. “Transformers has been one of their huge summer franchises, and Star Trek and G.I. Joe did well for them in the summer. While it’s not an overly crowded tentpole summer for the industry, [Warner Bros.'] The Dark Knight Rises will be big in July, and it’s better for Paramount to take its time, make the G.I. Joe sequel right, and protect the long-term value of the franchise.”
After Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator underperformed in May, Paramount’s summer will consist of distribution fees from DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (out June 8) and the candy-colored musical documentary Katy Perry: Part of Me (out July 5).
Those movies are unlikely to replicate the mammoth season Paramount had last year, led by the release of Transformers: Dark of the Moon — unless one of Perry’s costume changes is into Optimus Prime. But after the surprise success of The Devil Inside, which Paramount picked up for $1 million and turned into a $101 million global hit, and factoring in that they will collect a percentage of The Avengers as part of the deal that passed Marvel Studios to Disney, the studio isn’t in crisis either.
“It’s not such an orthodoxy as it used to be that you have to have one or two big summer movies,” says Eric Volkman, who wrote about Viacom and Paramount’s slate for the investment analysis firm The Motley Fool. “Maybe Paramount and Viacom lose a little prestige, but in terms of operations and finance and pure business, I think it’s going to do pretty well with this approach, and I think [moving G.I. Joe] was a smart thing for them to do.”
The latter half of the studio’s 2012 slate will bring Tom Cruise’s crime saga Jack Reacher, based on Lee Childs’ series of best-selling novels; Paranormal Activity 4, the latest in the cheap-to-produce moneymakers; Denzel Washington’s airline crash drama Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis; and the Seth Rogen/Barbra Streisand comedy The Guilt Trip, among others.
Contrino predicts many of those will do well, although there’s unlikely to be a record-breaking blockbuster in the lineup. “It’s a lot of doubles, but nothing is a full-on home run.”
Volkman was more bullish on the rest of Paramount’s 2012 titles. “Some of these smaller movies do have a lot of potential: Name stars, good directors, good writers. And there are a few franchises among them.”
Both analysts believe 2013 will be much brighter for the studio. That’s when Paramount will (of course) have G..I Joe: Retaliation in March, targeting the same period Lionsgate used to make The Hunger Games a hit, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek 2 on May 17, Pitt’s World War Z on July 21, and a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie set for the holidays.
“When people compare Paramount’s 2012 to its 2011, it’s not going to be pretty. But that’s a superficial analysis. It’s very short-sighted to look at previous year and say a studio is failing,” Contrino says. “Paramount should not be judged on one year. They’re still a very strong studio that knows how to pick valuable properties.”
They’ve already put out the call to the Autobots for help. Michael Bay is currently shooting the dark comedy Pain & Gain for the studio, but once he finishes that he’ll begin work on Transformers 4 for 2014.
As for G.I. Joe, which has already spent money on a Super Bowl ad and other marketing, investors will be happier to have Viacom eat that cost and spend some cash on reshoots if it means Paramount can turn the film into a bigger hit in the spring. “All they’re leaving is the ante on the table. In relation to the cost of the movie, it’s not so much,” Volkman says.
In other words, when you’re playing box-office poker, sometimes it’s better to fold than lose even more to the guys in the fancy suits — namely Batman and Spider-Man.