Set Up to Fail: A History of Movies That Debuted Against Blockbusters

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As you may have heard — if you have watched a television, been to a movie, visited a website, or looked at the side of a bus in the past two months — there’s a motion picture coming out tomorrow called The Avengers, and it is expected to be quite the big hit. What you might not be aware of this that there are two other movies hitting multiplexes this weekend: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a comedy/drama from Shakespeare in Love director John Madden (no, not that John Madden) featuring the Anglophile wet-dream cast of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Bill Nighy; and something called A Little Bit of Heaven, a romantic comedy in which Kate Hudson has cancer, Peter Dinklage is a male prostitute, and Whoopi Goldberg is God. No, seriously.

Those two films could be most diplomatically deemed “counter-programming,” that old Hollywood notion of putting out movies designed to appeal to audiences far different from those of the big blockbusters. The problem is, a movie like The Avengers defies counter-programming; it’s a movie that cuts across demos and marketing quadrants. Everybody wants to see that movie. (I, for one, know far more young women who are interested in seeing The Avengers than another goddamn Kate Hudson movie.) What you often end up with instead are kamikaze movies — films whose release opposite a major, hype-driven blockbuster indicates a competing studio is just giving up and burning off a movie that they have to release sometime (maybe even for contractual reasons), so this is as good a time as any.

There’s a long, strange history to be found in tracking the movies that opened against the sure things; we’ll take a look at a few prime examples after the jump.

THE DATE: May 27, 1977 THE BLOCKBUSTER: Smokey and the Bandit THE COUNTER-PROGRAMMING: Star Wars THE RESULTS: Believe it or not, the movie to beat on Memorial Day weekend, 1977 was Smokey and the Bandit, the country-fried truck-and-cops action/comedy from director Hal Needham and star Burt Reynolds. Smokey was opening in over 300 theaters on Friday, May 27th — a pretty puny number by today’s standards, but a flashy wide release for 1977. 20th Century Fox didn’t have anywhere near that many lined up for Star Wars, a sci-fi space opera from the director of American Graffiti; to try to get a little bit of a jump on Burt, they moved the release up two days, to Wednesday, May 25. Star Wars opened in 32 theaters that Wednesday, with a few more screens added Thursday and Friday for a total opening weekend engagement in 43 theaters. The most high-profile of those, Mann’s Chinese, was only booked because William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, originally slated to open that weekend, was pushed back a month to complete post-production. But Star Wars, as you well know, became the weekend’s runaway, word-of-mouth #1 hit; lines went around the block, more screens were added by the handful, and it ended up becoming the year’s biggest hit, with over $300 million in box office. (The Chinese famously kicked it out after a month to honor the Sorcerer booking, but that film tanked and Star Wars returned to the theater for nearly a year.) But Smokey didn’t exactly suffer; it was the year’s fourth-highest grosser, bringing in over $125 million and begetting two sequels.

THE DATE: May 21, 1980 THE BLOCKBUSTER: The Empire Strikes Back THE COUNTER-PROGRAMMING: The Shining, The Gong Show Movie THE RESULTS: By the time the sequel to Star Wars was ready three years later, the smash success of the first film made its follow-up the summer’s 800-pound gorilla. George Lucas again staked out Memorial Day weekend, with a release on Wednesday, May 21st. But two competitors appeared that Friday (May 23rd) to challenge it, and they couldn’t have been more different: Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, and Chuck Barris’ film adaptation of his trashy TV effort The Gong Show. Empire handily won the weekend, of course, racking up nearly $9 million on only 126 screens. If that number still seems tiny, keep in mind that big movies were still prone to the “platform” release strategy, opening on a few screens in major markets and slowly expanding. The main movies that “opened wide” were those that were presumed to be stinkers, films that critics and audiences wouldn’t like, and that therefore wouldn’t benefit from the positive word-of-mouth accompanying a slow roll-out—films, for example, like The Gong Show Movie, which came in second for the weekend with $1.5 million, but on 775 screens. The Shining, on the other hand, only debuted in ten theaters, grossing about $600,000, though it went on to do about $44 million. Empire, needless to say, remained the winner, bringing in over $200 million domestic in that initial run.

THE DATE: June 23, 1989 THE BLOCKBUSTER: Batman THE COUNTER-PROGRAMMING: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids THE RESULTS: There had been pre-release hype for summer blockbusters before, but nothing like the pounding of drums that occurred in spring and early summer of 1989 for Tim Burton’s film version of Batman. The Bat-logo was ubiquitous on T-shirts, hats, and print ads; Prince’s “Batdance” theme song was inescapable on radios; and in those pre-YouTube days, fans were actually buying tickets to movies just to watch the Batman trailer, and then leaving after. (In all fairness, the main film I remember hearing this about was Tony Danza’s She’s Out of Control, so you can kinda understand.) But Disney wasn’t willing to just give up the weekend; they seized on the dark tone of Burton’s Bat-movie and the PG-13 rating, and chose that same weekend to release their Rick Moranis-fronted family sci-fi comedy Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. And the strategy actually kinda worked: while Honey’s $14 million opening weekend was no match for Batman’s $40-plus mill, it was a perfectly respectable showing (on something like 800 fewer screens, no less), and managed to kick back the previous week’s big release, Ghostbusters II (also featuring Moranis) into third. Honey ended up being the year’s seventh-biggest grosser, racking up over $200 million in receipts.

THE DATE: November 16, 1990 THE BLOCKBUSTER: Rocky V THE COUNTER-PROGRAMMING: Home Alone THE RESULTS: Though Sylvester Stallone’s status as a box-office sure thing had started to slip, there was still every reason to believe that Rocky V was going to be a big Thanksgiving smash for the star in 1990. It was a return to his most beloved character, whose last outing (the 90-minute Cold War music video Rocky IV) had been the #3 movie of the year back in 1985; it was also a conscious effort to get back to the roots of the series that had started it all for Sly, with him penning a script that sent Rocky back to the streets of Philly, and with the star (who had helmed the last three Rocky pics) turning the directorial reins back over to John G. Avildsen, who had directed the first film (and the three Karate Kid pictures in the interim). It looked like a safe bet — but Fox counter-programmed with a family comedy called Home Alone, written by John Hughes, directed by Chris Columbus, and starring Macaulay Culkin, then only known for a supporting role in Hughes’ Uncle Buck. The gambit worked; atrocious reviews kept audiences away from Rocky, which came in second for the weekend (on 800 more screens) behind Home Alone, and while the Stallone film quickly disappeared from sight, Home Alone went on to become one of the year’s biggest hits.

THE DATE: May 19, 1995 THE BLOCKBUSTER: Die Hard with a Vengeance THE COUNTER-PROGRAMMING: Forget Paris THE RESULTS: It had been five years since Bruce Willis had donned the badge of his most popular character, New York-turned-LA cop and one-man awesomeness machine John McClane, but expectations were high: the first two films had grossed a combined total of $200 million domestic and had transformed Willis from a TV wisecracker to a certified movie action star. He’d also recently received the best reviews of his film career for his turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction — and fans of that film were even more excited by the news that Willis’ Fiction costar Samuel L. Jackson would appear in the third Die Hard picture. Thus, fans of both blockbusters and indies would turn out for Die Hard with a Vengence — but TriStar hoped there were enough rom-com and Billy Crystal boosters to peel off some of that audience and bring When Harry Met Sally-sized grosses to Crystal’s Forget Paris. It turned out to be a fool’s errand; Paris’s $5.4 million opening weekend was less than a quarter of Die Hard’s $22 mill, not even strong enough for a second-place showing (that slot went to Crimson Tide, then in its second week). It was the midpoint of a decade of underperforming vehicles for Crystal, who finally bounced back in ’99 with Analyze This before settling in to his eventual career as inexplicable go-to Oscars host.

THE DATE: May 24, 1996 THE BLOCKBUSTER: Mission: Impossible THE COUNTER-PROGRAMMING: Spy Hard THE RESULTS: The mid-’90s craze for big screen versions of classic TV shows collided with Tom Cruise’s unstoppable box office hot streak with 1996’s Mission: Impossible, which cast Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt in a twisty spy/action effort for director Brian DePalma. It rolled out on 3012 screens for Memorial Day weekend 1996 — the biggest debut for any motion picture to that point. The summer’s other action flicks steered clear, with Twister and The Rock providing two-week berths on other side of its sure-to-smash opening weekend, but Touchstone had a novel idea: they decided to debut their Leslie Nielsen-fronted, Airplane-style parody of spy movies, Spy Hard, up against the real thing. It was a clever notion, one that wasn’t slowed by the fact that Spy Hard wasn’t actually, y’know, funny or inspired. But it didn’t do half bad; the film debuted in third place (behind Twister, in its third week of release), grossing about $10 million to M:I’s nearly $75 million — no competition, but far better than other late-period Nielsen vehicles like Wrongfully Accused, Mr. Magoo, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

THE DATE: May 19, 1999 THE BLOCKBUSTER: Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace THE COUNTER-PROGRAMMING: The Love Letter THE RESULTS: It’s safe to say that no modern American film was more highly anticipated than Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace. Fans had been waiting sixteen years, since the 1983 release of Return of the Jedi, for a new installment in the Star Wars saga, and you could not escape the hype in the weeks (months, really) leading up to its May ’99 release. You’d have to be crazy to open a movie that same weekend, and that’s why it’s so surprising that not only did one open, but it was opened by DreamWorks — the studio run by George Lucas’ friend and frequent collaborator Steven Spielberg. It gets worse: the movie they put out, The Love Letter, was a romantic comedy featuring a rare starring role by Kate Capshaw, aka Mrs. Steven Spielberg. We can’t imagine that went over too well at home, particularly when the film opened in a miserable fifth place, grossing less than $3 million to Phantom Menace’s, erm, $105 million.

THE DATE: May 3, 2002 THE BLOCKBUSTER: Spider-Man THE COUNTER-PROGRAMMING: Hollywood Ending THE RESULTS: It was 1989 all over again in the summer of 2002, as a long-promised big-screen adaptation of a comic book favorite was finally on the way to the big screen, after years of development hell with everyone from Tobe Hooper to James Cameron to Tim Burton to David Fincher attached at various stages. Spider-Man finally fell into place with Sam Raimi directing, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the leading roles, and Willem Dafoe as the villainous Green Goblin; the first weekend in May (which had slowly replaced Memorial Day as the beginning of the steadily-creeping summer movie season) was earmarked for the film’s debut. But DreamWorks (again!) decided that this would be a fine weekend to roll out the latest Woody Allen comedy; if there were ever a more apt example of kamikaze counter-programming than putting a Woody Allen picture up against a Spider-Man movie, we don’t know what it is. Spider-Man, to no one’s surprise, grossed an astonishing $114 million in its opening weekend; Hollywood Ending, a weak effort even by the rather low early-2000s Allen standards, didn’t even make the top ten, grossing about $2 million. It would be three more years before Allen’s next hit, 2005’s Match Point, which would launch the more successful “European period” we’re still enjoying.

THE DATE: May 20, 2005 THE BLOCKBUSTER: Star Wars: Episode III- Revenge of the Sith THE COUNTER-PROGRAMMING: Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist THE RESULTS: So here’s one of our weirder stories. You see, back in 2002, the great Paul Schrader (who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and directed American Gigolo and Mishima) was hired to direct a prequel to The Exorcist. He’d nearly completed post-production on that film when producers Morgan’s Creek took a look at the picture and got cold feet, scared that Schrader’s psychological take on the story would disappoint viewers looking for a traditional, jump/scare effort. Inexplicably, they decided to flush the entire $30 million that had been spent on the film, hiring Renny Harlin (whose recent output had included Driven and Deep Blue Sea) to start all over, with the same leading man (Stellan Skarsgaard) and same basic plot, but as a more straight-forward horror movie. That film, called Exorcist: The Beginning, cost another $50 million; it was released in August of 2004 and satisfied neither critics nor audiences. After its failure, Schrader began quietly showing his version to a few critics and private audiences; reaction was strong enough for Morgan’s Creek to pony up an additional 35 grand (what more was that, at this point?) for Schrader to finish his picture, which was titled Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. Warner Brothers agreed to give it a limited theatrical release, with one catch: it was sending it out on the weekend of May 20, 2005, when the third (and final) of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels would hit screens. Revenge of the Sith came in first for the weekend, with a $158 million gross on 3,661 screens. Dominion didn’t fare quite as well; in its 110-screen release, it grossed about $140,000.

THE DATE: December 18, 2009 THE BLOCKBUSTER: Avatar THE COUNTER-PROGRAMMING: Did You Hear About the Morgans? THE RESULTS: Avatar was the first narrative feature in a dozen years from James Cameron, director of Titanic, the (then) highest-grossing movie of all time. Did You Hear About the Morgans? was a limp fish-out-of-water comedy from Marc Lawrence and Hugh Grant, who are sort of like Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro, if Scorsese and DeNiro teamed up to make terrible rom-coms (their previous collaborations were Music & Lyrics and Two Weeks Notice). Can you guess which one fared better when they both opened on the weekend of December 18, 2009? Columbia was presumably hoping that the estrogen-heavy audiences that had made co-star Sarah Jessica Parker’s Sex and the City movie such a giant hit the year before would turn out for this one, but no such luck; Avatar topped the weekend, with a $77 million gross that would eventually lead it to topping Titanic’s box office, while Morgans came in fourth for the same period, its $6.6 million in receipts placing it well behind The Princess and the Frog (in its fourth week) and The Blind Side (in its fifth).

So what did we learn from these examples? Well, that if there’s a sure thing hitting the screens in this blockbuster-boosting environment, it’s probably best to just stay out of its way. Unless, of course, you’ve got Star Wars or Home Alone waiting in the wings — in which case, fire away.