Hollywood’s Opening-Night Neurosis

If you want to be, oh, a heretic and actually go out to the movies this Friday night instead of staying at home watching It’s a Wonderful Life, good luck finding a new–I mean, brand-spanking new–movie to watch. There won’t be any. Either there will be movies that have been in the theaters at least a week (and who wants to watch those on a Friday night?) or movies that opened today (this list includes Man on the Moon, Any Given Sunday, and Snow Falling on Cedars). But unlike every other Friday in movie history, there will be no Hollywood films opening on Dec. 24. The four that might have–The Talented Mr. Ripley, Galaxy Quest, Titus, and Angela’s Ashes–will instead be opening on Christmas, which in the case of Ripley and Titus makes for a very odd combination.

The studios have explained that they aren’t releasing their movies on Christmas Eve because it is one of the slowest–if not the slowest–moviegoing day of the year, and they’d rather wait and let their films debut with a splash on Christmas. This sounds plausible, until you think about what the decision to release the films a day late actually means. Since movies always end their runs on Thursdays (or occasionally Tuesdays) regardless of when those runs start, it means that these movies will have one fewer day in which to make money. That’s not a day the studios will be able to get back at some point. Whenever their runs end, Ripley, et al., will have runs that are one day shorter than they otherwise would have been.

Now, the cost of showing those films for that extra day is negligible enough that even if only a few people show up, you’ll make some money. And it isn’t as if the theaters are going to be closed on Christmas Eve. They’re going to be showing something. In fact, they’ll be showing Any Given Sunday and Man on the Moon, among other movies. So why would the studios make a decision to keep their films out of theaters?

The answer has everything to do with the astonishing importance that films’ opening weekends have taken on in the mind of Hollywood. If you open Galaxy Quest on Friday and it turns in numbers that are disappointing relative to the opening weekends of other comparable films, then you end up looking like a loser, even though you could quite sensibly argue that this particular Friday through Sunday is not like every other Friday through Sunday. And Hollywood now operates under the conviction that if your films look like losers to the insiders after their opening weekends, they will become losers in the mind of the public. If you open on Saturday, though, then your per-screen average will look better, your two-day performance has a good chance of being impressive, and you can’t get dragged down by the inevitably weak Friday.

This makes no sense from a business perspective, since it’s analogous to saying that Ford shouldn’t sell its cars on days when it knows sales will be slow, since that will hurt month-to-month comparisons. But the opening weekend–which, to be fair, has always been disproportionately important in shaping the way studios handle films–is now of such importance that throwing away the money that could have been made on Friday in order to make the weekend look better somehow seems logical.

The interesting part of all this is that there isn’t really much evidence that viewers really do pay attention to those “The No. 1 film in America!” blurbs in the ads (let alone the “No. 1 comedy about androids in America!” blurbs). It’s become a cliché that all anyone pays attention to anymore are box-office grosses. But it seems likely that this is a cliché that is true of the chattering classes but not true at all of the people who actually go to movies. After last weekend, the studios releasing The Green Mile and Toy Story 2 mixed it up because Toy Story 2 claimed the top position in weekend gross by a slim margin, even though it was The Green Mile’s opening weekend. The people behind The Green Mile essentially said, “They had their turn. They should give us a break,” which was odd in two ways. First, it seemed to assume that box-office position was some subjective judgment. And second, it assumed that finishing first would really make a difference to The Green Mile’s eventual performance. If only the guys at Pixar had said: “OK, you finished first. Do you really feel better now?”