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Slate's Hollywood Economist: Plotting Film Premieres


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

It shouldn't come as any surprise that last weekend's two major new movies shot up to the top of the box office charts. They were the PG-rated "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and the R-rated "The Wedding Crashers." Both of these movies targeted very different audiences, and that's done on purpose. Movie studios have worked out a system so that they don't open similar movies on the same weekend, thereby splitting their audience. Here to explain the system is Edward Jay Epstein. He writes about the economics of Hollywood for our partners at Slate magazine online.

And, Edward, tell us about this system. Do the studio heads just get together and divvy up the calendar?


They basically use the same information, and let me say, this is perfectly legal and above board. They all subscribe to a research service called NRG, and this research service--it stands for National Research Group--collects information, does telephone polls, divides the audience in different groups, see which groups are being appealed to, looks at movies that could open on the same weekend and issues a competitive positioning report. This report then goes to the studio distribution heads. They look at it and they see, `Oh, if we open our movie on this weekend, we're going to split the audience with a rival.' It's that simple.

BRAND: But would they actually need this fancy research? Couldn't you pretty much get that "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" would appeal to the family audience?

EPSTEIN: Well, here's the brilliant thing: All six studios get the same data, see the same numbers and thus, they know that if they're second, they'd better do something, such as open on another weekend. It makes it a lot easier than each company acting independently.

BRAND: So let's take an example, the movies "War of the Worlds," "Batman Begins" and "Fantastic Four," all similar, big-budget action movies, but only one opened on the coveted July 4 weekend, and that was "War of the Worlds." So how did that beat out the other two?

EPSTEIN: Well, when they looked at the NRG competitive positioning reports and the telephone tracking studies, "War of the Worlds" won in every category. "Batman Begins" came in second and the "Fantastic Four" appealed only to young teen-agers. So they now knew that if they all opened on the Fourth of July weekend, "War of the Worlds" would win hands down, and they would look terrible. So "Batman Begins" moved earlier while "Fantastic Four" moved later. So all three came in first on their respective weekend, and all three could advertise themselves as America's number one movie.

BRAND: Edward, is there ever a situation where the studio heads refuse to budge, where they both want to open on a coveted weekend?

EPSTEIN: It's rare because it's like a game of chicken where two cars are heading across a one-lane bridge. They know that the collision will be worse than if they yield. So the question is, who's going to yield? There are situations where studios, especially the minor studios, don't want to play by the numbers. For example, a few years ago, Miramax had a film, "Gangs of New York," and DreamWorks had a film, "Catch Me If You Can." Both films starred Leonardo DiCaprio. They knew they would split the audience; he appealed to the same audience, and so they sat around and they argued, and in the end, DreamWorks went with its movie on Christmas, and Miramax had no choice but to yield even though its numbers were slightly better.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from Edward Jay Epstein, author of "The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood," and he also writes the Hollywood Economist column for our partners at the online magazine Slate.

Thanks, Edward.

EPSTEIN: Thanks, Madeleine.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Madeleine Brand
Madeleine Brand is the host of NPR’s newest and fastest-growing daily show, Day to Day. She conducts interviews with newsmakers (Iraqi politicians, US senators), entertainment figures (Bernardo Bertolluci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Gervais), and the everyday people affected by the news (an autoworker laid off at GM, a mother whose son was killed in Iraq).