[Photo: From Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard trailer]
If movies can thrive with short marketing campaigns, then Hollywood need not be as obsessed with shifting release dates.
The April 13 teaser trailer for The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard was distinctly “fine.” It brings newbie viewers up to speed, introduces the new plot and offers some of what the movie has to offer while showing off its star trio (Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson and Salma Hayek) in crowd-pleasing action-comedy setups and payoffs.
I wanted to see more of Antonio Banderas (as the baddie) and Morgan Freeman (as a mystery character), but maybe there will be another trailer in May. What’s noteworthy, relatively speaking, is that Lionsgate dropped this trailer two months before the film’s June 16 theatrical release. Among the many questions concerning what the theatrical industry might look like after the pandemic comes to an end, one concerns whether we might see shorter marketing campaigns and less of an obsession with hitting a specific release date.
The notion of a film being rushed to hit a release date is not new. Just offhand, Paramount allegedly stopped the post-production/editing of Joe Dante’s Explorers before it was finished for the sake of hitting its July 12, 1985, release date. Pretty much 75% of everything that went down during Justice League was due to Warner Bros. executives demanding that the film debut as scheduled in November 2017 despite the massive post-Batman v Superman “course-corrections” and eventual “Zack Snyder for Joss Whedon” director swap. In an era where studios date “untitled event movie” years into the future before they even have an actual movie, or when we get major announcements of a release date for a given franchise flick years beforehand, release dates are often deemed more important than the quality of the movie.
However, there are examples big and small which suggested that a movie could be a relative success even with a different release date and with less advance notice pertaining to that new date. For example, Sony moved Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows from June 29, 2016, to June 24, 2016. That’s a small change, but it occurred just 16 days before its intended release and ten days before the first paid Thursday-night previews. This was done both because The Purge: Election Year was starting to smell like a horror movie event on the July 4 weekend while Independence Day: Resurgence and Free State of Jones were beginning to just smell, period. Thanks to good reviews, strong buzz and a primal “Blake Lively versus a shark” hook, The Shallows opened with a larger-than-predicted $16.8 million opening weekend.
And just recently, quite obviously, Warner Bros. moved Godzilla Vs. Kong from May 21, 2021, to March 31, 2021 (and the weekend of March 26 overseas), releasing the first trailer (and really the first real piece of official marketing) on Jan. 24, just over three months before the release date. It opened with a best-case-scenario $48 million over its Wed.-Sun. domestic debut and is currently soaring past the $363 million global cume of Tenet. Not only did the movie open two months earlier than scheduled, but it thrived (where markets can justify robust moviegoing) despite only beginning its marketing campaign with three months to go. Universal notched a $71 million debut for Jordan Peele’s Us in March 2019 despite just a single trailer's being offered up less than three months before release on Christmas Day.
Sure, there are other “big” movies over the last decade (Jonah Hex, Dark Shadows, Solo: A Star Wars Story and Ghostbusters: Answer the Call come to mind) which began their marketing much later than usual and bombed at the box office. But A) those movies bombed for specific reasons related to their content and B) it’s hard to argue that audiences just didn’t know enough about those films, especially the big-budget franchise flicks, to make an informed “Do I want to see this in theaters?” decision. Likewise, I can’t imagine anyone who is aware of The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard and still being unsure after that (likely accurate) trailer. You want Sam Jackson and Salma Hayek picking on Ryan Reynolds as the latter tries to save the day without killing a bunch of people? Well, that’s the movie.
You didn’t need more than “Hey, look, it’s Godzilla and King Kong and now they fight!” to get folks excited about Godzilla vs. Kong. So much of the long-lead marketing, especially for the preordained blockbusters, is about appeasing the geek-centric media cycle and appealing to the hardcore fans and proactively converted. King of the Monsters launched a teaser trailer at SDCC 2018 and bombed a year later. Godzilla Vs. Kong dropped a single trailer just 90 days from release and was a hit. If you have a movie people want to see and (ideally) if it delivers the goods, you just need to let people know that it exists and when it opens. Studios were realizing that before the pandemic and I’d imagine they will continue to find a way to circumvent the expected long-lead marketing campaign.
And if there is less of a need to drown the marketplace in long-lead promotional efforts, at least prior to the last 5-9 weeks before release, then frankly studios can be more flexible in terms of release dates. Yes, some dates are better (any weekend before a holiday weekend) than others (almost any weekend after a holiday weekend). However, if Godzilla vs. Kong can hit pay dirt in late March, if No Time to Die would have done (sans the pandemic) as well in April 2020 as it was primed to do in November of 2019 and if Lionsgate can acquire John Wick and turn it into a new franchise in five short weeks, then there may be less of a need for this release date musical chairs that has dominated the industry in our year-long tentpole era.
Yes, direct (and demographically-similar) competition still matters, which is why F9 and Black Widow are happy that Top Gun: Maverick moved out of July. Having a movie that delivers what’s promised and what’s desired matters too. But if Patrick Hughes’ The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, a star-packed sequel to a buzzy original ($171 million on a $30 million budget in summer 2017), can perform about as well as expected (Covid curves aside) with just two months of lead time, there’s less of a need for endless media coverage months and months before the release date. If the marketing campaigns can be more flexible, then so too can the release dates. If movies that were supposed to open in prime slots one or two years ago can thrive whenever they debut in the Covid/post-Covid era, well, then there you go.
Movies that were supposed to open in June 2020 (Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Top Gun: Maverick) will now debut in November 2021. No Time to Die was supposed to open in November 2019 but will finally arrive in October of this year. Minions 2: The Rise of Gru will likely do about as well in July of 2022 as it would have in July of 2020 as initially intended. Ditto Venom: Let There Be Carnage opening not on Oct. 2, 2020, but on Sept. 24, 2021. Again, the pandemic and its still-problematic challenges means these films may not perform at premium theatrical levels. But one effect once the dust settles may be less of an obsession, to the detriment of the film and the filmmakers, with hitting a long-ago claimed release date no matter the artistic and commercial cost.
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