How Are Movie Release Dates Chosen?

Battle at the Box Office
Here today, gone tomorrow: Movie execs have to fight even harder for the perfect release date since films don't stay in theaters too long anymore.
Here today, gone tomorrow: Movie execs have to fight even harder for the perfect release date since films don't stay in theaters too long anymore.
Marcus Ingram/Getty Images

Movie release dates have grown increasingly important over the past decade thanks to the sheer number of films being released. The Motion Picture Association of America reports that Hollywood produced around 500 major movies in 2004. By 2009, that number had increased by a respectable 13 percent, with 557 pictures hitting the screens. Fast-forward four more years to 2013, and the number of major theater releases hit a whopping 659 [source: Motion Picture Association of America].

With so many movies in the mainstream, studios have had to rethink how they select release dates. After all, the more movies competing at the box office, the less each is destined to make. Moviegoers only have so much disposable income, so spreading it across a greater number of titles erodes box office numbers for everyone.

The increase in the number of films has also changed the way movies make money. Where they once were able to linger for weeks in theaters, making a respectable sum weekend after weekend, movies tend to burn out much faster these days. They earn a full one-third of their domestic gross in their opening weekend, then hang around for a relatively short period before clearing out to make room for the next big thing [sources: Eller and Friedaman].

So how have studios changed their release date strategy to reflect changing times? Many have turned to announcing release dates before a film is complete in an attempt to throw down the gauntlet and claim historically blockbuster weekends for themselves. This often requires picking a release date several years in advance, which has its own set of risks -- mainly that it locks in a completion date, which may result in a rushed, inferior film.

Naming release dates well in advance also lets competitors know your plans, which can be a good or bad thing depending on the situation. In some cases, competitive studios will simply pick a different weekend to avoid going head-to-head at the box office with another potential blockbuster. Others will select the date they want regardless of which studio has staked a claim.

For example, Warner Brothers set its film "Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice" to open on May 6, 2016. Good timing, as movies released in early May often break records. Unfortunately, Marvel liked this date too and chose it for "Captain America: Civil War." To avoid splitting the box office with another superhero film, Warner Brothers simply switched their release to March 25, 2016, more than two months earlier than previously scheduled [source: Ebiri].

As studios continue to produce greater numbers of films, the summer movie season could simply grow longer, which would allow each film to bask largely alone in the spotlight for a single weekend. If the public insists on sticking to the traditionally busy summer and holiday weekends at the movies, more films may be stuck sharing release dates, leaving studios to deal with the effects of smaller box office hauls.

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