Sunday Strategist: The Avengers Teach Hollywood Not to Fight
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Despite the silly workwear, Marvel’s superheroes provide a useful how-to on C-suite hand-to-hand combat.
Avengers Endgame is romping again this weekend. It’s a historic haul, but it’s also no surprise. The film faced no adversaries to speak of; everyone in Hollywood saw the motley Marvel crew coming and got out of the way of its opening weekends.
Movie studios and distributors have collectively distilled to a science one of the most important decisions in business: when not to compete. It’s an overt display of gamesmanship worked out years in advance by slinging around hundreds of millions of dollars. As in any negotiation, those with the upper hand signal their priorities early with big-name stars and big-dollar production and marketing budgets. Get ready for Aquaman 2 on Dec. 16, 2022!
Typically, the scrappier studios resort to counter-programming—positioning a film as a foil to blockbuster bait. You don’t send John Snow to fight the Night King; you send Arya. Similarly, you don’t schedule the next Star Wars to fight the Marvel posse; you send out a thriller like The Intruder. That said, counter-programming is becoming a bit of a lost art. Often studios aren’t even bothering to run anything out against the superhero set; they certainly didn’t during the Endgame debut. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
In recent years, Hollywood realized one big, hot weekend wasn’t enough for a tent-pole production and started spreading its spendiest spectacles around the calendar, rather than cluster them in summer. April, in some ways, is the new May as both Marvel and the Fast and Furious franchise have muscled in on the month. Last year, Black Panther bet on February, getting first-mover status and rounding up a pile of box-office cash no other film topped by year-end.
Consequently, there’s a little more breathing room for the little guys. Small-scale films can occasionally thrive in summer, as Crazy Rich Asians proved in August. October, long a cinema dead-zone ceded to horror films, has become a favorite play for studios with more subtle, screenplay-driven vehicles like A Star is Born.
This year’s surprise was Us, a heady thriller written and directed by Jordan Peele. Its producers picked to debut on a sleepy weekend in March and rounded up a tidy $71 million in domestic theaters, the third-best tally of the year.
In truth, old-school cinema is having an end-game moment of its own, in the face of streaming forces like Netflix. It's a dynamic that any number of businesses can relate to, from department stores to taxi fleets. The movie business needs every superhero it can get, and a cast of supporting characters adept at staying out of its way.
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