The World Cup is keeping the big movies out of cinemas in June

Movie scheduling is a voodoo science - nobody knows why certain releases work in certain slots

Workers carry a FIFA World Cup trophy replica at a small factory in the outskirts of Shanghai, China in May 2018. Photograph: Aly Song/Reuters

Workers carry a FIFA World Cup trophy replica at a small factory in the outskirts of Shanghai, China in May 2018. Photograph: Aly Song/Reuters

 

This week, The Irish Times will publish our much-anticipated big summer preview. You can peruse all the titles that are going to biff the box office during the balmy months. Well, some of the balmy months. Not for the first time, the studios have decided to run screaming from the World Cup. There is some good news here (kind of) for those concerned with Hollywood’s often-Neanderthal views on gender. In previous years, the only big, show-off releases have been those aimed at female audiences.

In 2014, for instance, The Fault in Our Stars was released during the group stages. This time round, the big beasts have decided that – in a spirit of sexual equality – nobody gets any mainstream blockbusters. Well, look on the bright side. At least, this means they recognise that women are capable of enjoying a football match.

Normal service is resumed as the final looms on July 15th. Dwayne Johnson appears in Skyscraper that weekend. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! comes your way a week later. Not everyone watches the football. Some football fans are capable of going to the pictures when the World Cup is on. But this is now the law. There is much else on of course. Excellent independent films such as Hereditary and Leave no Trace will open in that period. But it has been decided that no serious money will be thrown at the multiplex.

Delays

The scheduling of movie releases has always been a weird business and it’s getting no easier to understand. This week, you can finally see Norah Twomey’s The Breadwinner on the big screen. The Cartoon Saloon release has been around forever. Way back on September 8th, over seven months ago, it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. The word was that, like other releases from the Kilkenny company such as Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, the picture could well secure an Oscar nomination for best animated feature. So it proved. That happened in early February. The ceremony occurred a month later. We had to wait another two months for the film to emerge.

That wait is, however, relatively brief in comparison to some of the films that premiered at last year’s Cannes film festival. On June 1st, two weeks after the 2018 festival closed, adventurous viewers will get a chance to glimpse Arnaud Desplechin’s hectic melodrama Ismael’s Ghosts and Francois Ozon’s enjoyably barmy L’Amant Double.

The reasons behind these delays are many and varied. Independent productions often have no distribution in place when they premiere at events such as Cannes or Toronto. Once they are picked up, a lengthy process then is kicked into action. Publicity must be considered. Deals with individual territories are pondered. Eventually, a strategy creaks into position.

In the case of The Breadwinner, there may be some sense in positioning the film away from the clod of awards season pictures that emerge before and after Christmas. It is, of course, aimed at family audiences and, if it hangs around long enough, the school holidays loom. But The Breadwinner has surely lost some of the momentum that an Oscar nomination creates. We’ll see.

These pictures are following familiar patterns. We’re used to the fact that it can take a long time for an independent production to get all its ducks in the right order. The margins here are tiny. Something like L’Amant Double – a sexy thriller in the style of Brian De Palma – is never going to take Mission: Impossible money. Released in a few cinemas, it needs to score high screen averages with a carefully targeted audience. The distributors watch each other cautiously as they plot their supposedly brilliant strategies.

Cinematic massacre

Yet sometimes they get it all terribly wrong. Recall the great cinematic massacre of April 6th 2018. In theory there were supposed to be no big blockbusters out that week. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Jon Krasinski’s A Quiet Place scored brilliant reviews and ate up the box office. Meanwhile, an unusual collection of excellent films squabbled to keep apace in that horror film’s bloody wake. Michael Inside was a gut-wrenching Irish prison flick. 120 Beats Per Minute was a searing study of the Aids years in Paris. Ghost Stories was a superb British horror anthology. Love, Simon was a delightful gay romcom. Thoroughbreds was a wonderful, offbeat thriller tied up with a perverse friendship. You had to feel sorry for Todd Haynes. It’s not often that the director of Carol and Far From Heaven has the seventh best release in a week. But Todd’s Wonderstruck, though interesting, definitely met that description. You wonder what goes on with the distributors’ software in such situations. Perhaps, everybody thought – with some justification – that early April, after Oscar season, before the first summer blockbuster rush, is a traditionally quiet point in the calendar. Sadly, they all had the same brilliant idea.

Sometimes studios are forced into eccentric decisions about release dates. That was surely the case with Warners’ upcoming Mowgli. Principal photography on Andy Serkis’s version of The Jungle Book began in April 2015. It was originally slated for a release in October of 2016. At this point, the film-makers were, of course, aware that Disney’s version of the same story was on the way, but they couldn’t have imagined that it would be so huge at the box office. The sense is Warners have knocked the film as far back as they can to allow memories of the earlier smash to fade. It will arrive this October, a whole two years after its initially scheduled release.

The truth is that movie scheduling is a voodoo science. Nobody knows why certain releases work in certain slots. The early part of the year was declared a graveyard until Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland went bonkers in 2010. Now, there’s a Wonderland-style picture there every year.

Well, at least they’ve got the World Cup figured out. Right? Think again. The 2022 event in Qatar happens in November and December. The final will take place right before Christmas. Surely they can’t cancel all the big movies at that time of year. Avatar 3 is due then. Isn’t it?

Hair is already being pulled out by the roots.

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