Film: May your release be merciful

Who decides what comes out when - and why? Matthew Sweet on the secret rules of movie distribution

The logo is the first thing you see after the lights go down. That woman in a big frock holding a glowing ice cream cone. Searchlights picking out the name of Rupert Murdoch's smartest business investment. They get their credit before the stars, the producer, the director, or the studio who paid for the thing to be made. They're the distributors: the guys who saw what you're about to see and felt confident that they could flog the experience to you. The Mystic Megs of the film world, who take a movie from its makers and choose the most auspicious date for it to make its debut. Warner Brothers, in their triple role as studio, distributor and exhibitor, control the process from the sound stage to their own branded cinemas. Tiny companies like Gala Films buy the rights to peddle French art-house movies to metropolitan audiences. But they're all playing the same game: trying to guess when you're most likely to come and gawp. We reveal the 10 secret rules by which they all operate.

RULE ONE

If your film is rubbish, try to stop people finding out

So your film stinks. How do you prevent your audience detecting that whiff of turkey before they've paid a for ticket? You might open it on the same day, all over the world, and cancel all press screenings, as Warner Brothers did with The Avengers. Unfortunately, this alerts everyone but the most media-illiterate to the probability that the film is diabolical beyond comprehension.

Certain niche products, however, are not subject to the same laws. Movies aimed at an audience of maladjusted sociopaths, for instance. Banning critics from Mortal Kombat II (computerised characters punch each others' lights out) and Chubby Goes Down Under and Other Sticky Regions (helmeted comic says the word "minge" all over the Antipodes) did them no financial damage whatsoever. Unfortunately.

Alternatively, you could just forget it, as Buena Vista did with Mr Magoo. Like the Poll Tax, they tried this Leslie Nielsen flick out on Scotland first, and concluded, in a stroke of rare mercy, that it was best left to die unseen by the rest of the UK.

RULE TWO

You can sell the same thing twice to the same people

When two companies make the same film at the same time, the distributors usually cross their fingers and hope nobody will notice. That's what happened with Armageddon and Deep Impact (huge piece of rock smashes into poorly- conceived characters), Antz and A Bug's Life (computer-generated hymenopteran hexapod saves the world), Jakob the Liar and Life is Beautiful (grotesquely self-absorbed actor plays someone pretending the Holocaust isn't happening). Try really hard, and you might even convince people that your lookee-likee productions are the beginnings of some zeitgeisty new po-mo genre.

RULE THREE

Except when you can't

But it doesn't always work like that. If the returns aren't going to be big enough, a distributor may opt to can duplicated product altogether. This year, two cancer-themed weepies were scheduled to battle it out in British cinemas: Columbia TriStar's Stepmom, featuring the tasteful expiration of Susan Sarandon, and UIP's One True Thing, in which Meryl Streep does much the same thing.

In the US, One True Thing beat TriStar's movie into theatres by two months, made a respectable $6.6 million on its opening weekend, and secured Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination. When Stepmom was released, however, it raked in $19 million in its first two days. Economically speaking, Julia Roberts and Sarandon kicked Streep to a pulp. In the UK, TriStar got its film out first, so UIP propelled Meryl to the straight-to-video market, where Blockbuster-browsers after a terminal-illness tearjerker starring a big- league middle-aged actress are taking it home in droves: satiating appetites for such material before Stepmom hits the rental shelves.

RULE FOUR

Timing is everything

In 1998, PolyGram decided to risk confusing the young audience of Barney's Great Adventure by switching - at only a fortnight's notice - the already- publicised release date to coincide with Fox's blockbuster, Godzilla. A kiddie flick about the activities of a mauve Jurassic reptile, Barney would normally only have merited a line in the film columns. With critics handed an oven-ready joke, he suddenly became the second item on everybody's agenda, doing no harm at all to PolyGram's takings (pounds 2.19m in the UK, thank you). The whims of stars, however, can throw a spanner in the works: Warners were forced to shunt the release of Eyes Wide Shut forward a week just to suit Tom and Nicole's engagement diary.

RULE FIVE

Capitalise on disaffection

During a big football or rugby tournament, distributors have a clear- out of any vaguely female-friendly material that's been gathering dust in their vaults. The 1998 World Cup ushered in three girlie comedies (Soul Food, Hotel De Love, The Girl With Brains In Her Feet) and two weepies (A Thousand Acres, The Scarlet Tunic). And when some bone-headed crowd- pleaser crashes into cinemas, it's a good opportunity for those who deal in more left-field material to cash in on middle-class disapproval.

For instance, Optimum Releasing were the only company plucky enough to open a movie in the same week as The Phantom Menace - and made pounds 53,000 by re-releasing The Third Man, on a handful of screens.

RULE SIX

Don't throw good money after bad

In a cruel blow to his British admirers, Legionnaire - the latest triumph of the pumped-up auteur Jean-Claude Van Damme - was pulled by TriStar, probably put off by the so-so performance of their more aggressively marketed Van Damme flick, Universal Soldier: The Return.

RULE SEVEN

Don't offend your audience. Not accidentally, anyway

Unforeseen circumstances can sometimes give a tasteless twist to an innocent movie. A harmless gag about Gary Glitter and little girls had to snipped out of Sliding Doors; the death of Diana necessitated a Prince Charles joke to be excised from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (not that there was anything tasteful in it to begin with). Diana's death worried UIP into dumping the Bette Midler vehicle, That Old Feeling: one of its characters was a paparazzo.

RULE EIGHT

Take a raincheck

Thanks to British weather, November, February and March are traditionally the best months to open a movie in the UK. But Boxing Day and New Year's Day are actually the dream dates of distributors, who can benefit from cinema's seasonal transformation into hangover cure or relation-avoidance tactic.

Distributors of arthouse movies rarely launch movies on a Bank Holiday weekend, when their natural constituency of metropolitan types clear out to Tuscany and Brighton. And no distributor would open a Jewish-themed film during Passover (or without first securing a booking at the Screen on the Hill, NW3).

RULE NINE

Don't be afraid of the obvious

In the States, Fox opened Independence Day on July 4th - which just happens to be the date when, statistically, more Americans go to the cinema than at any other time of the year. In the UK, Metrodome did so well when they re-released the sentimental classic It's a Wonderful Life during Christmas 1997, that they did it again in 1998. Alliance Atlantis will unleash The Blair Witch Project 2 on 31st October, and Disney's Fantasia 2000 will open on the 1st January 2000. As the latter is an Imax film, and can therefore only play on three screens in the UK, it has to be a date you'll remember.

RULE TEN

Get someone else to pay your marketing expenses

Bumming a ride on someone else's publicity campaign can often be an iffy movie's best chance of success. When Miramax blew a huge amount of cash generating hype around Velvet Goldmine and its gorgeous, pouting starlet, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Alliance and the Rattray company decided - just coincidentally, you understand - to release The Governess and The Disappearance of Finbar, also starring you-know-who. So all those Rhys-Meyers interviews and mag covers that Miramax's PR agents had worked so hard to place also boosted the opposition's takings.

Festivals can help out in this respect, too. A sizeable slate of movies - Ride with the Devil, EdTV, The Limey, The Straight Story, The Legend of 1900, etc. - premiered at the 1999 London Film Festival, only to open across the UK a few weeks (or even days) later. And if the Festival can help with the costs of, say, flying a bunch of actors from Hollywood to London, that's a nice wad of cash saved, too. And cash is what it's all about. Oh, and an unforgettable movie experience - coming soon to cinema near you.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering