By Anousha Sakoui and Christopher Palmeri
April 3 (Bloomberg) -- Summer 2014 is coming early for Hollywood.
Studios used to release their big summer films starting Memorial Day weekend, at the end of May. In the past decade, it’s crept up earlier in the month. This year, three potential blockbusters debut in April, including Walt Disney Co.’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which opens tomorrow and could set a weekend record. It’s followed by “Rio 2” from 21st Century Fox Inc. and Time Warner Inc.’s “Transcendence.”
The studios are angling to avoid a repeat of last summer, when too many big-budget films came out at the same time. While industry sales set a record, the releases cannibalized each other. By staggering them, studios and exhibitors limit head-to-head competition for target audiences and cut the risk a costly picture will be overshadowed too quickly.
“What you are seeing this year is absolutely a conscious move to space out releases,” Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president for domestic distribution at Warner Bros., said in an interview. “It is an important change.”
“Captain America” should generate about $97 million in its opening weekend and $248 million in its full theatrical run in the U.S. and Canada, according to Boxoffice.com. The industry researcher this week increased its forecasts for the picture, a sequel to a 2011 feature. An opening that big would be a record for April, according to Rentrak Corp.
“With the beginning of April we found a sweet spot from a competitive standpoint, spring break holidays and the playability of a franchise film that suggested the right conditions for success,” said Dave Hollis, executive vice president of distribution for Walt Disney Studios.
“Rio 2,” the animated sequel from Fox, lands the following weekend and is forecast to open with sales of $41 million. On April 18, Warner Bros. releases “Transcendence,” a science-fiction thriller starring Johnny Depp that’s projected to open with $26 million.
Tentpole films, so-called because their huge receipts support studios financially through the year, typically come out from May to early September, the four months when Hollywood does more than 40 percent of its business. That’s when kids are out of school, adults are on vacation and the weather is good enough to drive to cinemas.
The schedule creates overcrowding, especially with studios focused more on action films for young males. Over three weeks last June, Warner Bros. released the Superman film “Man of Steel,” Viacom’s Inc.’s Paramount Pictures came out with “World War Z,” a zombie thriller, and Sony Corp. opened the domestic terror feature “White House Down” with Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx.
Box-office sales for the last weekend of that month were led by two films that sidestepped the action-film slugfest: “Monsters University,” a sequel from Disney’s Pixar in its second week of release, and “The Heat,” a female cop buddy film from Fox starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.
This year’s schedule, reflecting work begun years ago, looks kinder.
“We dated the ‘Rio 2’ movie a long time ago, and chose the time dated on the last ‘Rio’ release, where we had great success launching an original content movie,” said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution for Twentieth Century Fox. “We will have nine weeks until the next animated movie.”
Recently Hollywood has had success introducing films outside the summer months. Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. focused attention on the earlier window two years ago with the March 2012 film “The Hunger Games.”
Released around spring break for U.S. schools and colleges, “The Hunger Games” led the box office for four weeks and became the studio’s biggest U.S. hit, with domestic sales of $408 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
“Gravity,” released by Warner Bros. last October, generated $273.3 million in domestic theaters. The studio’s “The Lego Movie,” the top grossing film so far this year, came out in February.
“You’re always going to want certain films to be in that key summer period, because children are out of school and you want that repeat business,” Amy Miles, chief executive officer of Regal Entertainment Group, the No. 1 U.S. cinema chain, said at a Deutsche Bank conference last month. “But I do think the studios are getting better from a scheduling perspective.”
If anything, summer 2014 looks light on big-budget action films. Sony releases “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” on May 2, three weeks before Memorial Day. BoxOffice.com forecasts a $112 million opening weekend for the film, which won’t face serious competition until Warner Bros. releases “Godzilla” on May 16.
Paramount’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” one of the studio’s three big summer films, opens June 27 and has two weeks before Fox’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” hits theaters.
“If you have the goods that is fine, but you don’t want to force a movie in the summer,” said Don Harris, Paramount’s president of domestic distribution.
Last year, releases between May 3 and the U.S. Labor Day holiday in early September generated a record $4.75 billion in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada, a gain of 11 percent from the previous summer, according to Rentrak. Excluding a single week, studios released at least one or two pictures with budgets of $100 million or more each week from early May to mid-August, at times crowding up to four new features in cinemas.
This year’s slate could top the 2013 total, especially if ticket prices creep higher, according to Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at Rentrak.
The real test for smarter scheduling looms in 2015, when some of Hollywood’s most recognizable characters return to the big screen. The slate features “Star Wars” and “Avengers” films from Disney, Sony’s next James Bond feature, a new “Mad Max” movie from Warner Bros., and at least six summer releases from Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures, including a “Bourne” sequel and “Despicable Me” spinoff.
“These films are increasingly more expensive to make and to market, so you have to be smart and consider the schedule,” said Goldstein of Warner Bros. “You can’t take as much risk.”