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Why did three fun comedies have to arrive at the same time?

Robert W. Butler
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

For being such allegedly savvy operators, the people in charge of Hollywood sure do some dumb things.

Like releasing three good, smart comedies on the same day, thus guaranteeing that two of them would crash and burn.

That's what occurred last weekend when "Zombieland," "The Invention of Lying" and "Whip It" squared off at the nation's multiplexes.

Though they were all over the place in terms of approach and tone — zombie yukfest, cerebral/philosophical rumination, roller derby-as-female-empowerment — the three were competing for comedy dollars.

The winner by a gross out: "Zombieland," which collected $25 million, leaving "Lying" to play catch up with $7.4 million and Drew Barrymore's "Whip It" with a pathetic $4.85 million.

C'mon, folks. It's not as if there are so many worthwhile comedies out there that we can afford to throw them away.

Even your average fifth-grader understands this basic rule of film distribution: When you open your movie, make sure it's the only movie of its kind debuting that day.

You don't unveil "Transformers" the same day as a "Terminator" sequel. Or a ghost story alongside a slasher flick. Or "Julie & Julia" opposite another chick flick like "The Time Traveler's Wife." You don't split the audience for those genres. It isn't done.

Apparently nobody told the deep thinkers at Columbia, Warner Bros. and Fox Searchlight. How did this happen? Call it a perfect storm of bad decisions.

Originally "The Invention of Lying" was to have opened on Sept. 25. "Whip It" and "Zombieland" were scheduled to open Oct. 9.

Between them and dominating the weekend of Oct. 2 was to have been "Shutter Island," a Martin Scorsese-directed Leonardo DiCaprio thriller set in an isolated facility for the criminally insane. The names Scorsese and DiCaprio on the marquee, along with the lurid subject matter, suggested a box office behemoth.

"Shutter Island" had that weekend all to itself.

Then in August it was announced that "Shutter Island" wouldn't be released until February. Suddenly there was an empty date in the fall release calendar, and the various studios jumped into action, moving "Lying," "Zombieland" and "Whip It" into "Shutter's" slot.

Result: a bloodbath at the box office, and I'm not talking about "Zombieland's" high body count.

Is there a way to avoid this sort of scheduling Armageddon? Probably not.

The studios operate independently of one another, and there's no central booking agency telling them what the other studios are planning. Which is why the schedule is forever in flux ... opening dates are always being changed as films jockey for position, hoping to claim a weekend when there's no obvious competition.

Going into last weekend it had to be obvious to everyone that "Zombieland" (artistically the least interesting of these three comedies) would be hard to beat. The film's combination of blood, horror film cliches and brighter-than-you'd-expect humor was guaranteed to appeal to the fanboy base. Basically, it cannibalized two genres: horror and comedy. It perfectly targeted that much-prized demographic of young men.

"The Invention of Lying" attracted fans of comic Ricky Gervais (the Brit version of "The Office" and last year's "Ghost Town") and a more sophisticated audience. (Note to up-and-coming filmmakers: Do not expect to break box office records by appealing to a sophisticated audience. P.T. Barnum had some useful thoughts on this matter.)

The film's premise was clever — a world where nobody has ever told a lie — and the picture's second-act satire of the origins of religious faith (the main character invents God and the afterlife from whole cloth) appealed to audiences who like their laughs with a bit of intellectual bite.

"Whip It" (the best of the three, at least dramatically) took the worst hit. Let's see ... will it be zombies or roller derby? Zombies, definitely. Apparently "Whip It" didn't even draw the expected audience of young women.

While the walking dead carried the day, I take some comfort in the idea that "Whip It" will have longer legs. Most of the gorehounds turned out for "Zombieland" on opening weekend.

"Whip It" will benefit from word of mouth and return business by customers charmed by its blend of raunch and sentiment. Hopefully audiences will discover it the way they did star Ellen Page's big breakthrough film, "Juno."

I don't care which studio makes a killing and gets bragging rights on Monday. But I am concerned about the quality of movies in general, and when solid efforts go splat, it doesn't bode well.

What conclusion will studio heads draw from the numbers? I would hope they'd recognize that it made no sense to pit three witty comedies against one another.

But my fear is that the bean counters will look at the numbers and conclude that there's not much audience for clever satire or sweet goofiness.

Brace yourselves for "Zombieland II."

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