Hollywood was all aflutter late last week over the news that Paramount had done the unthinkable — it had delayed the release of its big summer film “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” just five weeks before it was due to reach theaters. The studio said it was pushing the release back to next March so the film could be converted to 3-D.
Judging from the buzz on Twitter and reaction from industry insiders, no one was buying that explanation. The consensus? Paramount must have decided that it didn’t have the goods to go up against so much stiff summer superhero competition. Surely the film must be a dog.
After all, when studios bail on a release date, it’s usually a sign of something being amiss. Paramount had already spent millions on marketing and promotion touting the film’s launch, including a costly buy for a Super Bowl commercial. The “G.I. Joe” trailer was already playing in theaters. Billboards were up around town. As one top studio executive told me, with obvious relish: “Look on the bright side. Paramount could be the first studio ever to run a spot for the same movie on two Super Bowls in a row.”
From the standpoint of conventional wisdom, surely someone hit the panic button. Look at Marvel Studios: It locks in its release dates years in advance, often long before anyone has started to shoot the movie or even finished the script. For years, this has been the calculus for summer behemoths: Plant your flag on an attractive release date and work backward from that.
It makes a lot of sense, especially if you’re a showbiz brand manager who views your movie as an industrial assembly-line product. In pop music, an artist can sense something in the air, slip into their backyard studio and get a record out into the world in months, sometimes weeks. TV shows deal with zeitgeist issues all the time.
But Hollywood, especially when it comes to reacting to the marketplace, rumbles at the pace of a 2-ton dinosaur. Studios have so many merchandising tie-in deals and carefully orchestrated promotional windows that once a movie’s release date is set, it’s almost impossible to shift gears.
Studios are also prisoners of a risk-averse mind-set that has clogged the machinery of the business, stifling almost anything that resembles innovative thinking. This is especially true of studio release dates, which often seem to be chosen by a distribution chief who’s been in closed-door consultations with a palm reader. If a film does well on a specific date, as “The Dark Knight” did when it came out on the third Friday in July 2008, you can bet that its sequel, this summer’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” will also show up in theaters on the third Friday in July.
Perhaps because Paramount doesn’t have the same deep pockets as most of its studio rivals, it has been open to less traditional kinds of decision-making. The studio spends less of its own money bankrolling movies than any other major distributor, but it has been especially canny about getting the most bang for its buck from its releases, one reason why it was the industry’s market share leader in 2011.
Paramount’s business has been booming overseas, in large part because of recent 3-D releases like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Thor.” It was an obvious motivation for giving “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” a 3-D makeover. With audiences in Russia, Korea, Brazil and Japan flocking to see 3-D films, studios believe that a good film can easily enjoy a 25 to 30 percent boost in its box office if it is distributed in 3-D. With digitally equipped theater expansion unfolding at a breakneck pace, there will be even more potential ticket sales available by the time “G.I. Joe” debuts.
But to hear insiders at Paramount tell it, the studio was also reacting to events that had occurred in the marketplace since “G.I. Joe” went into production last summer. In fact, executives at every studio in town have been losing sleep in the last several months, trying to make sense of a series of major seismic shocks to their traditional business model.
Over the past 80 days, the industry has been rocked by the release of two huge flops — Disney’s “John Carter” and Universal’s “Battleship.” Each lost many millions, $200 million in the case of “Carter.” At the same time, the industry has spawned two gigantic hits, Disney’s “The Avengers” and Lionsgate’s “The Hunger Games,” which are setting box-office records all around the globe.
As one veteran studio executive put it: “It’s great to have the big hits, but when you have two huge films that tank like that, it’s not a fluke — it’s a very unsettling development. It proves that there’s no floor anymore. You can spend an unbelievable amount of marketing dollars and still not even open your movie.”
For Paramount, the biggest lesson from this upheaval is that it couldn’t stand pat with “G.I. Joe.” The studio claims that when it greenlighted the film, it was so rushed that it couldn’t be in 3-D and still meet its summer release date. That now looks like a blunder. By delaying the film, the studio will eat a lot of marketing dollars, as well as spending more money on a 3-D conversion. But with the film in the hands of Jon Chu, a young filmmaker who’s already fluent in the technology, having made two 3-D movies already, the studio believes that a 3-D version of the film would be seen as more of an event internationally.
The studio also isn’t so hung up on leaving June 29 behind. In recent years, a host of films have done summer-like business in March, most recently “The Hunger Games,” which had one of the largest opening weekends ever from its March 23 launching pad this year. Ditto for “Alice in Wonderland,” also released in March, which out-grossed every 2010 release besides “Toy Story 3.”
No one’s saying that “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” will end up being a bigger hit next March than it would’ve been this June. But it is a sign that Paramount isn’t wearing blinders. With two giant action movies having recently capsized, despite huge marketing pushes from their studios, it’s time to realize that if you don’t have the goods, you can’t buy your way to success.