Danny Manus is an in-demand script consultant and founder of No BullScript Consulting and author of No B.S. for Screenwriters: Advice from the Executive Perspective. Follow Danny on Twitter @dannymanus.
Despite this being a banner year for film and the highest grossing year at the box office domestically in the history of Hollywood, there are some that still feel like many of the features Hollywood is producing lack the creative spark they once had. That it has become bigger, but perhaps less inspired.
People are quick to blame a number of factors for this; Screenwriting structure formulas, how the same 50 writers are hired to write (or rewrite) most of the studio films made, the death of the DVD market, the rise in allure and material of the TV market, etc. Or that studios are only in the business of blockbusters, existing IP, sequels, prequels and franchises. And those all may play a part.
But I dare to offer another explanation for why some material – especially studio fare – sometimes feels like it could have been handled with more care or creativity…
It’s because studios are now producing to a competitive release date instead of producing for the best quality film.
That’s not to say that release dates haven’t always been important or been planned in advance. It’s not news that most of the Oscar-bait is released in November and December. Most of the big-budget Tentpoles are usually set for April-August. Holidays movies do well at the holidays – shocker. Horror does well in January and October, and if you’re making a romcom, Valentine’s Day is always a winner.
But release dates have become more of a studio blood sport in the last handful of years and I think if studios competed more on quality instead of quantitative analysis of prospective numbers, we all might be better off.
In the more competitive blockbuster market, studios need to claim release dates years in advance. Often before they have a director, a cast, or even a script. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came out on August 8, 2014 and grossed $65 in its opening weekend. The next week, Paramount announced it was going forward with a sequel that would be released June 3, 2016. They announced the writers of the original would be returning, though they didn’t have a script. But script or not, a movie is hitting theaters June 3, 2016. And considering the extensive FX that go into films like these (especially with the Turtles), that’s a very quick turnaround. So which process do you think is going to get slighted – the production process? Post? Visual FX? Or development?
I’d argue the answer is that last one.
I’m not picking on TMNT. It’s across the board. Once the Marvel films started breaking records, they had to claim release dates five years in advance! Avengers Infinity Crusade Part 2 is coming out May 3, 2019! DC’s Justice League Part 2 is coming out June 14, 2019! We are still TWO YEARS away from PART ONE of either of those films being released!
Want to see how far in advance release dates are set for your fave comic book project? Click here.
Now, I understand that in a crowded field of 60 comic book films over the next five years, studios need to claim the prime real estate to give their projects the best chance at success and keep them spaced out so they don’t cannibalize each other. And I understand that once a film does well, fans want the next movie ASAP. But I tend to believe that if a studio said, “We’re making a sequel and we’ll release it when it’s awesome,” that would drum up just as much interest as, “We’re making a sequel and it will be out in July of 2019.”
One could opine that by setting a release date five years in advance, that gives producers a leg up on development because they have a timeline to work off of and five years is certainly more than enough time to come up with a good story. But it’s not really five years.
Studios are basically reverse-engineering the development of their scripts after figuring out the production and post and promotional tour timelines they need, and where that fits in with Comic Con. And whatever time’s left over…is development time.
Sequels can often be even harder to produce than the original because not only are you dealing with expectations, but you have to make them bigger and out-think the original film which may have taken 3-5 years to develop. Except now you have 24 months to not just develop it, but produce it, complete post, advertise and promote it, and release it! No wonder so many sequels don’t live up to the hype.
Yes, you need to plan ahead and you can’t wait so long that the generation who saw your original film is too old to care about the sequel or the remake (cough, Point Break, cough). But if it’s a better product, people will see it any day. At the very least, the announcement of the release date could wait until after there’s a writer hired.
Speaking of which, it’s common practice these days for studios to commission two different writers concurrently to each write a different version of the same film (called dual tracks) and then the studio decides which one they like better or maybe even smash the two together. That’s what happened with Aquaman, for example.
It’s done in order to cut down on the development time it would take to hire one writer, wait for a draft, and then hire new writers to completely rewrite it. It makes sense in theory, though clearly creates pressure on the writers to deliver quickly as everyone wants to be the first one read. So as writers, you need to be able to crank out great material even faster now.
Studios are even claiming release dates without knowing WHICH of their films is going to be released. Untitled Marvel Movie has claimed 5 releases dates in the next 5 years. They don’t even know which movie it will be – but they know when it will come out!
It’s understandable in some ways as release dates are a political chess game for studios. And to be sure, the right release date can ensure success and the wrong release date may kill a good movie.
Our Brand is Crisis, the Sandra Bullock political flop that came out October 2015, was a victim of bad timing and assumptions by the distributor who set the date. The studio banked not only on its lovable star, but on the fact that in this political climate where everyone is talking about the 2016 election, it would be the perfect time to release a film about a cut throat campaign manager. They didn’t realize that because of the gluttony of news about these real campaigns, no one wanted to pay money to see a movie about a fake one.
If that movie had come out 6 months earlier, it probably would have made decent money.
Our Brand is Crisis was released in what was the harshest month of the year. October saw most of the biggest flops of 2015, including Pan, Jem, Burnt, Rock the Kasbah, Scouts Guide to Zombie Apocalypse, The Walk, etc. Could the studios have known that their October dates would be the death knell of their hard work? No. October is usually a solid month at the box office. Which might lead one to believe that most of those movies flopped because they weren’t great films, not because they were released on any specific day.
I mentioned the new Point Break, which made less than $10M in its opening weekend, because sometimes it’s not about when you get released so much as what ELSE is being released around you. Point Break had to deal with the second weekend of Star Wars The Force Awakens. Counter-programming like the Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy Sisters can work against something like Star Wars. But another action movie? No way.
There are consultants and execs paid a good amount of money to help choose release dates for a film using algorithms and past successes. But the question that should really be asked before deciding on a release date is, “How long will it take to make the best version of this film?”
Instead of force feeding us ticking clock projects where proper development isn’t the biggest consideration, the writing period is crammed into a quick timeslot & post is rushed to meet marketing dates for a Comic Con trailer, just take the time to do it RIGHT. I’m pretty sure audiences will appreciate it even more.
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