There is a fine art to matching 600 films a year with just 52 release slots. Geoffrey Macnab looks at the elaborate game of musical chairs that results when a big film suddenly changes its schedule

In early June, Fox Searchlight took over the UK release of Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life and quickly set a release date of July 8, an incredibly short period in which to get the film to market.

“We were keen to go as soon as we could because there had been so much heat and publicity coverage of the film in Cannes because of the Palme d’Or win,” says Kate Gardiner, head of Fox Searchlight UK. The company was prepared to sacrifice reviews in long-lead magazines as well as trailering (there were few online or theatrical trailers for the film) as July 8 fell in clear water between the UK release of Transformers: Dark Of The Moon and Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2. There was not a single film released that week on more than 100 prints.

The gambit paid off. The Tree Of Life is on target to make well over $2.7m (£1.6m) at the UK box office. But the consequences of Fox’s decision were felt immediately by other distributors. An elaborate game of musical chairs was set in motion. Both Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Jack Goes Boating (handled by Trinity) and John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard (handled by StudioCanal, formerly Optimum) switched dates when they realised they were up against Malick’s film.

Jack Goes Boating, which had been due to go out on 30 prints, shifted to a date in early November.

‘Dating is important, but there are so many good films that it’s hard to find a quiet week or a bad week’

Andy Whittaker, Dogwoof

“It is a film publicist’s nightmare. All the plans just vanish in the air,” explains Cedric Behrel, co-founder of Trinity Filmed Entertainment.

Trinity was able to cancel its press outdoor ads “just in time”. Nonetheless, Behrel now argues the revised November slot — the first clear date available — may suit the film better. “We had always been considering autumn dates anyway. We just grabbed the summer slot because we had one.”

For StudioCanal, the challenge with The Guard was to maximise theatrical on a film shaping up as a big crowd-pleaser. It was hoping for lead reviews but realised most quality newspapers would plump for Malick’s film.

“We never find out [about changes in date] from any other distributor. We find out either by the calendar or by conversations,” says John Trafford-Owen, head of theatrical releasing at StudioCanal’s UK arm.

Changing of The Guard

The company’s original plan, to go day and date on The Guard with its Irish distributor Element Pictures, was scrapped when the film shifted to an August 19 UK date.

The third distributor affected was arthouse specialist New Wave, which was releasing Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme on that day, and did not shift dates.

“Our films aren’t in the position where we can say, ‘This is the date, play it or not,’” notes New Wave founder Robert Beeson. “We did get clobbered on Film Socialisme with The Tree Of Life suddenly plonking itself there. We could have moved out but then that would have meant waiting about six months to release the film. It’s a case of waiting for screens.”

There are relatively few London West End venues (some 39 theatres totalling 190 screens) and securing these sites is crucial for arthouse films. “For films like ours, 70% of the box office is London,” says Beeson.

As distributors and exhibitors reveal, ‘dating’ is a ferociously competitive part of the business. Go out on the wrong week and the film could be sunk.

Jason Wood, director of programming at Curzon Cinemas, compares the process to poker. Whoever has the strongest hand will win, however late that hand is shown.

Distributors and exhibitors hold frequent informal discussions about dating, but for independent and arthouse films a final decision is often made at the last minute.

‘You can spend five years dreaming up a film and then the one thing you can’t control is the weather’

Rupert Preston, Vertigo

“Sometimes you have a conversation with somebody, which is never a good conversation,” says Wood. “You say, ‘I know we spoke about this date but the reality is this other film has come along. It’s potentially bigger than you, better than you.’ People don’t like it but they know that’s the way it works. Unfortunately the smaller distributors are often the ones who suffer.”

The bookers know exactly the problems distributors face. “Nobody wants distributors to go out of business,” says Picturehouse Entertainment’s Clare Binns. “A distributor might be releasing 20 films a year. Five will be absolute corkers, five will be not so good. Then there will be 10 in the middle we have to do favours for, just as much as we sometimes beg favours from them.”

Studio distributors set their tentpole dates months and even years in advance — and are rarely obliged to move them. For example, Bond 23 is set for release on October 26, 2012, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on December 14, 2012, while Thor 2 already has a release date of July 26, 2013. Independents need to be more nimble.

“Dating is important. But all year round there are so many good films that it’s hard to find a quiet week or a bad week,” says Andy Whittaker, managing director of Dogwoof, a distributor generally quicker than many rivals in getting its titles into cinemas.

Certain rules about dating are obvious: time children’s movies for the holiday periods and have horror films ready for Halloween.

From the end of Toronto onwards, the so-called ‘awards corridor’ opens up through to the first quarter of the following year. Films vying for Bafta, Golden Globe and Oscar nominations hit the cinemas in their droves, putting the squeeze on the indie arthouse distributors even further.

Tales of the unexpected

Even so, dating sometimes seems to defy logic. This summer in late July, for example, there were five 3D films competing in the UK market at once — Cars 2, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, Horrid Henry: The Movie, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Captain America: The First Avenger — with several more on the horizon. And yet most were prospering.

Trafford-Owen points out that Universal Pictures’ thriller The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, opened on the same date (March 4, 2011) as StudioCanal put out the similarly themed Unknown, starring Liam Neeson. “You’d think you were chasing the same audience, [but] we go on to do $10.7m (£6.5m) and they do $9.1m (£5.5m).”

With some titles, distributors work out when they want DVDs to hit supermarket shelves (Christmas, Mother’s Day, Halloween) and work back to the theatrical release.

When Vertigo was releasing StreetDance 3D, the company realised the similarly themed (and much bigger budgeted) US studio movie Step Up 3D was due to be released in August. Vertigo spotted a gap in 3D product in the late May/early June period and rushed to finish the movie for a May 21, 2010 release. The result was a $17m UK gross. With Horrid Henry: The Movie 3D, Vertigo spotted “a slight gap on younger children’s films” in the early summer. The strategy again seemed to work, with the film making $2.1m (£1.3m) on its July 29 opening weekend.

But for all the precision planning, there is one thing distributors are powerless to control. “That’s the huge variable. You can spend five years financing and producing and dreaming up a film,” Vertigo’s Rupert Preston sighs, “and then the one thing you can’t control is the weather.”