Wednesdays are becoming the new Fridays in Hollywood, with hits such as “Shrek 2” and “Spider-Man 2” both getting early starts on the weekend.
Over the past few weeks, three films have shifted from a planned Friday opening to a Wednesday slot. While Warner Bros. Pictures’ “The Polar Express,” DreamWorks’ “Surviving Christmas” and Focus Features’ “Seed of Chucky” all switched to Wednesday, Nov. 10, to take advantage of Veterans Day, which falls on a Thursday this year, more and more distributors are moving to “hump day” to help their films stand out in the crowd.
Films used to open on different days in different cities. Although gradually in the late-’70s, when movies started opening wider, the studios made a push to open all films on Fridays for uniformity and to save on marketing and advertising costs.
The current spate of date shifts brings the list to nine schedule changes this year from a Friday opening to a midweek release date, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Some of the schedule changes have involved a limited Wednesday opening in either New York or Los Angeles or both. Lions Gate adopted that strategy for Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” for example. Other changes have involved shifting a movie’s entire wide release up two days, as happened with DreamWorks’ “Shrek 2” and Sony Pictures’ “Spider-Man 2.”
The strategy has been used most recently to take advantage of summer’s plentiful midweek grosses. It also has been designed to allow films to build word-of-mouth for two days in advance of the weekend crush. The top three top films of the year to date -- “Shrek 2,” “The Passion of the Christ” and “Spider-Man 2” -- have all opened on a Wednesday.
“I think it’s a positive trend,” said Jim Tharp, president of distribution at DreamWorks, whose “Shrek 2” reaped $20.9 million before it even played its first weekend. “It usually indicates a good movie or the case where a holiday is involved, and you are trying to get word-of-mouth out in some manner. In many cases, it’s a good setup to the weekend.”
Web-crawling WednesdayIt proved a brilliant strategy for “Spider-Man 2,” which had the biggest Wednesday opening ever, earning $40.4 million on June 30, in advance of the July Fourth weekend. In its case, part of the calculus in shifting from Friday to Wednesday was that this year Independence Day fell on a Sunday, and because that holiday, with its barbecues and fireworks, can take a bite out of the box office, the earlier opening was designed to compensate for any shortfalls that the actual holiday brought.
“We opened ’Spider-Man’ on Wednesday because Friday is a getaway day and Sunday isn’t a normal day,” said Jeff Blake, vice chairman at Sony Pictures Entertainment. “The advantage to releasing in the beginning of July is it’s the heart of the summer and Wednesdays and Thursdays become much more important. Opening on Wednesday let us capture the best of the summer.”
But moving a film to a Wednesday is no guarantee of success. The strategy can certainly backfire if a film doesn’t have the reviews or the playability to sustain a solid gross for five days. In fact, if a film falls victim to poor reviews, it can be left to twist in the wind on Wednesday and Thursday, setting the stage for a downbeat weekend. That appears to be what happened to Disney’s “King Arthur,” which opened Wednesday, July 7, to $4.8 million and mustered only $23.6 million in its first five days. Its three-day take of $15.2 million left it trailing that weekend’s top opener, DreamWorks’ “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” which scored $28.4 million over its first three days.
‘Dead by Friday’“If you release a bad movie (on a Wednesday), you could be dead by Friday,” Exhibitor Relations president Paul Dergarabedian said. “You can get away with a good weekend by sliding by on a good marketing campaign, but all the marketing in the world can’t save you if you open on a Wednesday and the film receives bad word-of-mouth.”
But according to Disney’s president of domestic theatrical distribution Chuck Viane, the strategy of going out on a Wednesday was still the right one for “King Arthur.” “It’s a very crowded time, and you look for any competitive advantage. We had close to $9 million in those first two days, which usually helps springboard you towards the weekend,” he said. “Everything appeared to be that we were doing it right.”
While some movies are moved to Wednesday when it looks as if their reviews will be strong, other films, whose distributors feared critical drubbings, also have been shifted to Wednesday in hopes of building upbeat word-of-mouth that can counter weak reviews. “In that case, you can bury the reviews in Wednesday’s paper when moviegoers aren’t looking for them,” said Terry Curtin, president of marketing and distribution at Son-based Revolution Studios.
In releasing her studio’s summer hit “White Chicks” -- a film she said was “review-proof” -- the Wednesday shift was to ensure the movie of a full week at the box office before it ran up against the expected “Spider-Man 2” juggernaut.
The strategy worked, with “White Chicks” getting strong word-of-mouth that propelled the film to an opening five-day gross of $27 million. Even so, according to Curtin, a strong Wednesday rarely is as powerful as a good Friday debut.
“Only when you have a movie with such huge anticipation as ’Spider-Man’ or ’Shrek’ can you really drive audiences to any day of the week,” she said.
Indeed, Sony’s Blake cautioned that studios can sometimes “overthink” their release strategies.
“If there is nothing wrong with the Friday, then you should release on a Friday,” he said. “Most of the year, doing the expected, opening the movie as big as you can on a Friday, is probably the best thing to do.”