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.

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