Summer showdown: Is there room for 2 action movies on the same day?
It was 38 degrees in my backyard last night, but in the movie business, it’s already Summer Showdown Season.
Sony Pictures is so eager to launch its August film “Total Recall” that the studio is putting a 30-second promo on Apple’s movie trailer home page Tuesday. The promo isn’t just selling the film; it’s touting the movie’s first trailer, which will premiere Sunday during ABC’s showcase NBA clash between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics. (Yes, it’s an ad for an ad.)
On the surface, it’s a big way to beat the drums for “Total Recall,” a reboot of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi thriller that stars Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale. But by buying a costly 2 1/2 minutes of prime NBA advertising real estate for a movie that doesn’t hit theaters until Aug. 3, Sony is also sending a not-so-subtle signal to Universal Pictures that it means business. Universal, you see, has an action movie of its own slated for the same date: “The Bourne Legacy,” a reboot of its popular “Bourne” franchise, with Jeremy Renner taking over from Matt Damon in the lead role.
If you think it’s crazy for rival studios to release two action movies aimed at the same male audience on the same date, you couldn’t be more right. In an era when studios find common ground on all sorts of shared goals, from fighting piracy to rolling back star salaries, box-office blood lust still surfaces when it comes to planting flags on prime opening weekends.
This gamesmanship is deeply rooted in Hollywood’s DNA. In the old days, studio moguls would play poker with one another, betting huge wads of cash just to prove who had the most cutthroat instincts. Today’s movie marketers have inherited some of that gambler’s mentality.
With only 40 or so really attractive weekends a year and nearly three times as many major movies in need of release dates, marketers are always playing chicken with one another, especially since studios are rarely eager to betray any lack of confidence in their product.
Universal was the first to date its “Bourne Legacy,” picking the Aug. 3 date way back in October 2010. Sony moved “Recall” onto the date roughly four months later. So why hasn’t either side blinked?
After all, when rival studios release movies with similar appeal on the same date, at least one film has to come in second.
In the summer of 2010, 20th Century Fox put an action film, “The A-Team,” on the same date as Sony’s “Karate Kid,” believing it had a stronger product. Fox underestimated the “Karate Kid” remake’s appeal; it did $55 million on its opening weekend, more than twice what “A-Team” made.
The same thing happened a few weeks later when Fox’s Tom Cruise-starring “Knight and Day” went up against Sony’s Adam Sandler-starring “Grown Ups.” The Sandler film easily won the weekend.
Sometimes both films get hurt. Last April, Warner Bros. and Universal both ended up with R-rated comedies on the same date when Warners moved “Arthur” onto the same weekend as “Your Highness.” Both flopped.
Warners is the most aggressive studio when it comes to jumping onto other studio dates. In fact, Sony’s “Grown Ups” sequel, already scheduled for release on July 12, 2013, now has company, thanks to Warners’ announcement that it is putting its “Pacific Rim” thriller on the same date. Warners also said it would release “Hangover 3” on May 24, 2013 — the same day as Universal’s “Fast & Furious 6.”
Sometimes, though, it’s not the aggressor who wins. Last summer, when Paramount moved its J.J. Abrams-directed thriller “Super 8” onto the same June date as Universal’s “Fast & Furious 5,” Universal called an audible, moving “Fast 5” to April 29. The decision was a huge winner — “Fast 5” scored big at the box office, opening to $86 million in the U.S. on the first weekend and getting an early jump on its international release; it ended up making $628 million overseas.
When it comes to the face-off between “Total Recall” and “The Bourne Legacy,” it would seem that Sony has a key competitive advantage: Universal hasn’t seen Sony’s “Total Recall” trailer, but Sony has seen Universal’s first “Bourne” trailer. That’s because Universal released it early so it could play in theaters in front of the studio’s recent Denzel Washington thriller “Safe House.”
With Universal’s trailer in hand, Sony did what is known as a head’s up trailer test, showing both trailers to a recruited audience of 800 likely moviegoers. Neither studio would talk to me on the record, but Sony insiders say their trailer easily received the better reaction. It’s possible that it wasn’t a fair fight, since Universal says its “Bourne” trailer was missing some key special effects.
But having been given a sneak peek of the “Total Recall” trailer, I’d have to give it the edge as well. Although the “Bourne” trailer is loaded with action, “Total Recall” has more audience eye candy, displaying an exotic futuristic world and some dazzling, gravity-defying visual effects. Even more crucially, since both films are going after guys, “Total Recall” has more sex appeal. Farrell has what appear to be complicated relationships with the film’s female costars, who engage in a fierce battle with each other at one point in the film.
“You'd have trouble betting against ‘Total Recall,’” said a marketer who is familiar with both projects and works for neither Sony nor Universal. “It has action and sex appeal, which will win out over action alone every time with guys. And ‘Total Recall,’ with its cool futuristic look, has a chance to appeal to far more teen boys than ‘Bourne.’”
There’s even a game within the game: The producer of “Total Recall,” Neal Moritz, is also the producer of Universal’s lucrative “Fast and Furious” series. Moritz declined to comment, but insiders say that he’s been fending off a sizable amount of playful trash talk from Universal about the commercial challenges for “Recall.”
Will Universal blink after “Total Recall” gets a splashy send-off this Sunday? The studio insists it isn’t moving. But these days, you don’t need your own market research team to see if Sony is making the right bet. After its trailer has its premiere Sunday, the court of final opinion will be on Twitter, where fans will weigh in with their own assessments.
Today’s studio marketers keep an intensely close eye on reaction on the Internet. Twitter buzz can be deceptive — “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” was a Twitter sensation, yet it bombed. But at least it’s spin proof. If the reaction to “Total Recall’s” trailer is mixed, you can bet “Bourne” is staying put. But if Sony’s film gets a tsunami of ardent tweets, I’m betting Universal might look for a more hospitable weekend.
In showbiz, sometimes you gotta know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.
Photo: Colin Farrell in a scene from the upcoming summer thriller "Total Recall." Credit: Columbia Pictures