Business vs. Art: The Hollywood Release Date

The days when studios made hundreds of smaller, character-driven pictures each year for moderate budgets and respectable gains are long gone. Today’s business is all about big stars and big returns. The occasional international blockbuster smash hit has launched a Holy Grail-like pursuit for the next “Titanic” or “The Dark Knight”. Because of the skyrocketing costs associated with the ever-elusive blockbuster, Hollywood has become a creatively stifling industry with a limited slate of mediocre major studio films. Perhaps the people who suffer most are the members of the viewing audience, who find themselves flipping through the newspaper, struggling to find a decent film that may have some semblance of plot and character. As the quantity of films produced began to decrease, an emphasis on big releases and marketing campaigns targeting mass audiences took place.

The trouble now is that there are more summer blockbusters than there are summer weekends to open them. As the annual slate of blockbusters squeezes out competition from the bulk of lower-budget films, marketing executives go to battle for the increasingly coveted perfect release date. Blockbusters were once distributed to target the summer season, a time when teen audiences with plenty of pocket money traditionally spend extra time in the theaters. According to one journalist, “the trouble now is that there are more summer blockbusters than there are summer weekends to open them”. Studios hate clashing with each other for the same pie, so they go out of their way to schedule their release dates strategically. With studios averaging more than forty million dollars alone in marketing costs for the typical summer blockbuster, it comes as no surprise that they constantly bump release dates in the hopes of avoiding certain death at the box-office.

Earlier this week Nikki Fink a writer for the Deadline Hollywood examined how the Weinstein Company put pressure on Scott Rudin and Stephen Daldry to finish editing “The Reader”. The director had previously announced that the film would not be completed in time for the Holiday release date. After considerable deliberation the director agreed to have the film debut on schedule. This type of pressure from studios illustrates how quality of work has taken a back seat to the marketing of the film. Last month Warner Brothers announced that they were moving the November release date of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince back to July 17th the following year. Some have speculated that this move was made as a result of the writers strike however others like myself insist that since the film was already in the post production stage that movie was made purely to gain more summer box office dollars. Rodney, a blogger for the movieblog.com agrees that the move was made strictly to increase potential box-office profits. When the industry spends almost as much time and money marketing and promoting its seasonal blockbusters as it does making them how can we expect film quality to do anything but decline?

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Delay Explained

Firstly I would like to thank you for your simple and to the point explanation of the Warner Brothers’ decision last month to push back the film release date of the sixth installment of the Harry Potter franchise. President and Chief Operating Officer Alan Horn’s announcement rocked the world for a large and loyal fan base. Due to the skyrocketing costs associated with producing blockbusters the marketing aspect of film production appears to be taking the front seat to film quality and consumer (viewer) delight. I agree with you, Warner Brothers is abusing fan loyalty in attempt to get more money. I don’t believe that the writers’ strike has anything to do with the delay, do you? At least the WB was brave enough and smart enough to admit that the change in release dates had less to do with the quality of the film and completion status than marketing and overall studio business. With the type of loyal built-in fan base that Harry Potter receives do you think that the box office numbers of July instead of those in November will be that different? Large studios heavily seek both release dates. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is expected to have a final budget of around $200 million. With $200 million at risk companies must do anything and everything to minimize costs and reduce risk as much as possible. Are loyal Harry Potter fans willing to have a film produced on a $30 million dollar non-studio budget in trade for not dealing with the business and marketing ploys of the large studios? Are we as consumers addicted to the high-octane special effects and major star power that drives up the production costs of films today? Is it too much to ask the large studios to be honest and great at making big-budget films?


Nikki Finke, thank you for your prompt and sensible post. It seems as though the business side of Hollywood and the artistic side have clashed yet again in the ongoing battle for importance and control over the life of a film. As you well know the days when studios made hundreds of smaller, character-driven pictures each year for moderate budgets and respectable gains are long gone. The skyrocketing costs associated with film production have allowed the marketing aspect of film production to gain more importance than the overall quality of the film. The time it takes for an artist to realize his/her vision is no longer as important as finishing the film on the agreed upon completion date.
As the annual slate of blockbusters squeezes out competition from the bulk of lower-budget films, marketing executives go to battle for the increasingly coveted perfect release date. How important is releasing the film on time for blockbuster success and academy award consideration? Is this type of disagreement typical for the industry or is this a response to the general dislike for Harvey Weinstein by the films producer and director? Daldry’s email to Weinstein illustrates the distaste towards the man and his business practices. Do you think Daldry may have been able to finish on time and choose not to in order to exercise the little power artists have over business executives in the film industry today?

1 comment:

Michael Ecker said...

Walking out of the last installment of one of my favorite movie franchises, I should have been feeling pretty good. However when that last installment was "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. This is just one example of exactly what you very concisely spoke about. You had great examples for your purpose as well and I couldn't agree more. The trend of Hollywood's priorities towards making a buck (or a few million) over making a great film is becoming more and more prominent. Other recent examples are Spiderman 3, I am Legend, Speed Racer, Luve Guru, and the list could go on. However I don't think that things are as dire as they may seem, and, if you will allow, I would like to describe some examples to the contrary.

While studios and production companies rely on guys like Michael Bay (Transformers) to bring in their summer cash, not only by making a hit, but for the merchandising licensing that comes along with it, they also create some really great fall and winter movies. It's arguable that they do so only for Oscar notoriety, but whatever their intention, the art of cinema is far from dead. Paramount/Dreamworks, for example, in 2007 released summer hits Shrek 3, and Transformers, but also released No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Two of the runaway Oscar winners, and pretty unanimously considered great pieces of cinematic art.

There are even exceptions in the Summer Blockbuster category, though very few. Iron Man, and The Dark Knight are two examples (if not the only examples) of 2008 summer hits that came together in a very captivating, well done, and even artistic way. Unfortunately I suppose that in these days of declining ticket sales, it's a situation where the consumer has to deal with the bad in order to get the good. Studios have very high costs to run, and they rely on summer hits to help with these costs. Let's just pray that in the pursuit of the blockbuster, they don't forget about the Cohen brothers, Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and all the other talented filmmakers who are still making great films.

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