Given the increased competition for audience eyeballs, picking a good date on which to open a film is vital. Craig Mathieson explores the dark art of film scheduling... and discovers why December 17 is a no-go zone this year.
13 Oct 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

Three weeks ago, when a dust storm engulfed Sydney in a hazy red veil, the city slowed to a standstill. Landmarks on the skyline disappeared, the ferries stopped running and surgical masks became the day's must-have fashion accessory. It looked like the beginning of the apocalypse, and that made one man very happy.

“It was an incredible promotion – free! – for 2012 (left),” points out Stephen Basil-Jones, Managing Director of Sony Pictures Releasing for Australia and New Zealand. Roland Emmerich's blockbuster about the end of the world as we know it has long been scheduled for release on November 12 and here, eight weeks out, was mother nature chipping in like a valued promotional partner.

Filmgoers routinely take the release schedule that governs what motion pictures we see and when, for granted. Sometimes you count down the days to the opening of an anticipated title, at others you check the listings on a Thursday morning – the day of the week films open in Australia – and are pleasantly surprised at what you find. But for those who set the schedule it's a persistent obsession, a mixture of art and science that has to balance aesthetic concerns and commercial realities.

“I'm constantly thinking about the release schedule,” admits Joel Pearlman, managing Director of Village Roadshow. “It's something you're constantly looking at and making changes to. You've got to search to find the best place for your film so it can find its place and find an audience.”

The release schedule is built from the individual release dates of approximately half a dozen multinational distributors (the aforementioned Sony and Village, as well as Fox, Universal, Paramount and Walt Disney Studios), a further half a dozen independent or boutique arthouse distributors (such as Icon, Hoyts, Palace, Transmission, Hopscotch and Sharmill), and some smaller companies or even one-off endeavours. The practical result is that every week four to eight films (and even more on special dates, such as around Christmas and New Year) are trying to secure a limited amount of screens and filmgoers. It's a vast collision.

“The old adage is that you have to start with the right release date,” explains Basil-Jones. “But it's getting harder for several reasons. One is that more releases in the marketplace. I find that staggering, particularly with the crises around the world and the difficulties in the margins that are making them tighter and tighter in this business. It's unbelievable that we have six or seven films a week.”

Sometimes the changes that occur within the fluid dynamic of Australia's cinema release schedule are strong and overt. Late in August Hollywood's Paramount Pictures put back the worldwide release of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, a blue chip release starring Leonardo DiCaprio, from October to February. It was an unexpected shock, although Paramount was clear that the decisions were based on economic factors separate from the film's quality.

“Companies are aware, in the current financial environment, of having all their costs for a film in one financial year and the income in the next,” notes Michael Selwyn, Managing Director of Paramount Pictures for Australia and New Zealand. “Paramount were quite open about how they looked at the very successful year they'd had and they looked at the cost of releasing that film and they reckoned that it would be a very good film to start off the first quarter of their new financial year.”

The release schedule is built from the top down. It's dominated by the major commercial releases, generated by Hollywood, that bring the majority of audiences into multiplexes. Setting the right date for these films is part of a two or three year long process that begins when they go into production. Most are released in Australia on or near the same day they arrive in American cinemas – a tactic known as “day-and-date” – meaning they're mainly clustered from May to August (America's summer holidays) and around December.

“You're seeing a lot more day-and-date releases to combat piracy,” explains Joel Pearlman. If piracy is a problem, one costing billions to legitimate film companies, created by online technology, the reverse is that the internet has also allowed to global marketing that aids day-and-date releases.

While film fans may be looking at next week, or possibly next month, for what they'll see next, those setting the dates are looking far further ahead. “I've got a schedule with films dated well into 2011,” Pearlman says, while a quick look at even 2010 reveals a distinct topography: Paramount, for example, will launch blockbuster season on April 29 with Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 2, while Sony is looking to late August for the Angelina Jolie espionage thriller Salt.

“There's a lot more big, franchise tentpoles that are very hard to compete against,” says Stephen basil-Jones. “But there's always a place for counter-programming: a special effects action movie can always be counter-programmed with a lovely romantic comedy. There's always a place for a discerning, quality film against the most commercial releases. You just have to be smart about it.”

A major release creates its own gravity – at the moment, for example, the only release scheduled for December 17 is James Cameron's highly anticipated Avatar – but the distributors agree that they're generally too concerned with maximising the prospects of their own film to worry about minimising those of their rivals.

Besides, there's a simple rule at play. “If you play that game there will always be a payback – someone's always going to have a bigger film than you next time,” laughs Stephen Basil-Jones.

So if that's the ecology in which the dominant works from Hollywood arrive here, how do Australian features fit in? Give the back and forth about the quality and commercial prospects of our domestic cinema, how do you program their release?

“We're seeing something of a sea change,” enthuses Paramount's Michael Selwyn. “There have been a lot of Australian films over the last few years, and this isn't being unkind, that haven't been mainstream material. Now we're finding, particularly as a company, films that we think are more mainstream and that we have a better idea for of the film's commercial potential.”

Paramount's strategy with Australian releases is two-fold. Firstly the broader titles are tied to specific calendar events. This year the pairing of Paul Hogan and Shane Jacobson in Charlie & Boots was built around Father's Day; next year they're looking towards Wog Boy 2: The King of Mykonos for Easter and the military drama Beneath Hill 60 for Anzac Day. Independent releases, that need nurturing at the box-office, are handled by Transmission, which Paramount has a stake in. On that side a film like Samson & Delilah was scheduled off the back of noteworthy acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival.

As well as what date to schedule a release, there's also the broader question of what to release. As the schedule does become more crowded, distributors have to make tough, sometimes surprising, choices about what to take up and what to forward to DVD release. Sony, for instance, opted not to release here the Fatal Attraction-esque thriller Obsessed, a box-office hit in the States starring singer Beyonce Knowles that took US$68 million in ticket sales.

It was, explains Stephen Basil-Jones, a case of cultural differences. “While we're sometimes regarded at the 51st American state, some films that do well in the U.S. you have to look at them and ask why. There's a very large African-American base over there that Obsessed had. There's also genre – we're just not great with the thriller/horror genre in this marketplace.”

Ultimately, however, it's the very notion of what constitutes a release date that may change. While the gap between American and Australian release dates has dramatically reduced, and films now open on a huge amount of screens, the progression of a title from cinema to DVD to pay-per-view to cable television and ending at free-to-air television has remained close to sacrosanct.

Some want to change that. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who was recently in Sydney to work on his Sydney Theatre Company production in December and to promote his dual Che release (his spin was that the dust storm promoted Che because they were both about reds), is an advocate for a film releasing in cinemas, on pay-per-view and via DVD on the same date.

He believes giving audiences a choice will improve revenue, although it hasn't been tested with a major release. Only Soderbergh's smallest independent titles, such as 2006's Bubble, have tried that approach, and even then the only cinema chain that would take part was that of distributor Mark Cuban, an internet billionaire who shares Soderbergh's belief.

“It's frustrating because there's a new model out there – it may not involve every format, but it's a variation of that,” argues Soderbergh. “If I was running a studio right now and I had a high profile movie next summer I would absolutely, in the two weeks prior, put on a high definition pay-per-view window for $50 a viewing that closed the day the movie opened in cinemas. Someone will try that eventually, but it will take a huge amount of backbone because they will be considered a pariah.”

While Village Roadshow's Joel Pearlman agrees that that model hasn't been tested, he points to the changes being wrought by the expansion of digitisation in screening as being crucial. Digital delivery and screening, he believes, will result in dramatic evolution. What won't change is the primacy of the cinema. After all the workings of a release date are resolved, what ultimately matters is that people will always want to enjoy the movie experience.

“Cinemas are evolving, but they're still offering an experience that you can't have at home,” says Pearlman. “The collective experience of watching a movie with an audience is still unique.”