Will the World Cup Hurt Summer Movies?

Studios are shuffling release dates to avoid openings during the event

When the robot hero Optimus Prime returns to movie theaters in June, his toughest foes might not be other transformers but Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Paramount Pictures will release Transformers: Age of Extinction in the U.S., Asia, and parts of Europe smack in the middle of soccer’s World Cup, which runs from June 12 through July 13 in Brazil. The studio will delay the movie’s launch date in many soccer-crazed countries until after the tournament ends to avoid a dent in the box office.

The World Cup, the second-biggest global sporting event after the Olympics, coincides with the peak of the movie industry’s big-budget summer season. “The World Cup will continue to pose more and more of an issue,” says Anthony Marcoly, president of international distribution at Paramount, which is owned by Viacom.

Optimus Prime
Courtesy Paramount Pictures

21st Century Fox decided to release X-Men: Days of Future Past three weeks before the start of the Cup. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens in most countries after the final match. The timing of the Cup “could not be worse,” says Craig Dehmel, senior vice president for sales and strategic planning at Fox International. Overseas markets have become more important to Hollywood over the past decade. Non-U.S. ticket revenue made up 70 percent of the global total last year. In Spain or the Netherlands, where soccer rules, the World Cup can knock 25 percent or more off movie ticket sales, Dehmel says.

Soccer is increasingly popular in the U.S. This year’s tournament—in June and July, typically the biggest months at the box office—could draw larger audiences because much of the host country is in a time zone only an hour ahead of New York and Miami.

“We wanted to make sure that our big action movies in particular were released outside the window,” says Veronika Kwan Vandenberg, president of international distribution for Warner Bros. The studio’s Edge of Tomorrow, starring Tom Cruise, will be in U.S. theaters on June 6. It opens in 29 other markets at the end of May, giving the movie a possible boost from a long holiday weekend in Europe and a two-week run before Brazil meets Croatia in the Cup’s first match.

Studios generally like to release expensive movies at about the same time around the world to leverage marketing campaigns and thwart pirated versions. The more time that passes between a U.S. opening and one in, say, China, the bigger the chance a film will be illegally downloaded and pirated, especially if the buzz is good. Paramount executives weighed the trade-offs with Transformers and kept the release dates for Asia and the U.S. the same, concluding that pirates were a bigger box office threat than soccer players.

The studios are using the cleared weekends in the summer schedule to roll out more family films, such as DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon sequel, which Fox will release on June 13. “The World Cup gives us the opportunity to counterprogram and release films during a less competitive corridor, as we are doing with Jersey Boys,” says Kwan Vandenberg from Warner Bros. The adaptation of the hit Broadway musical about the iconic 1960s group The Four Seasons opens on June 20.

The number of Americans tuning in to soccer is growing. The last World Cup final, in 2010, drew a larger U.S. viewership than the Kentucky Derby and an average of viewers for the NBA Finals that year, according to Brad Adgate, director of research at Horizon Media. “Every time the Cup is played, the ratings in the U.S. get higher and higher,” Adgate says. “It is wrong to dismiss any impact it might have on the domestic box office.”

Univision, which has the U.S. rights to the World Cup in Spanish, had 2.67 million viewers for the championship in 2010, a 15 percent increase from four years earlier. Univision’s audience is critical to Hollywood box office receipts—Hispanics are a growing percentage of frequent moviegoers, accounting for 32 percent of the total, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

The competition for viewers will be as intense as the action on the soccer field. “That is what is making this year so fascinating,” Dehmel says. “It’s really a reflection of how much more important international grosses are to the business.”

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