I've Always Wondered ...

Why do some movies open early?

Tony Wagner Jul 2, 2015

We’re smack in the middle of summer movie season. Superheroes, dinosaurs and potty-mouthed teddy bears are duking it out at the box office, while rock monsters, secret agents and a vogue-ing Channing Tatum wait in the wings.

Heading into the holiday weekend, listener Erich Arabejo wrote in with this question:

“I’ve always wondered why movie studios release their movies on Fridays but start them on Thursdays or Wednesdays if it’s a potential blockbuster hit.”

Those types of debuts, at midnight or earlier, ahead of wide release, are usually geared toward the most dedicated fans.

“When I get into a movie, I want to find the way to see it as soon as I can,” says Austin, Texas filmmaker Lex Lybrand. He and his wife regularly go to early screenings and midnight premieres. “If that’s the soonest we can see it, that’s what we’re buying a ticket for.”

In 2008, they didn’t just buy tickets for the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight,” they went to two shows in a row and then saw the Batman movie twice more over opening weekend.

Letting those types of super-fans see the movie first is key, says Vincent Bruzzese, CEO of C4, an industry analysis firm. They don’t add much to the opening gross — they’d have likely gone opening weekend no matter what — but they help market the movie.

“The theory is if you get the diehard fans out first to see the movie on a Wednesday or Thursday, they’re also the ones who are going to be most likely to spread positive word-of-mouth,” Bruzzese says. 

Plus, the novelty of these special screenings — staying up all night or sitting through a huge marathon to be the first at a big blockbuster — generates a lot of coverage like this:

“If you’re the film that gets in before the weekend, you begin to build buzz,” says New York University professor Al Lieberman, a former film and television marketer. “It’s out in the press immediately and on social media right away.

The “Harry Potter” movies hit a sweet spot, Lieberman says. They were popular with a broad audience, and many of those fans had the time over summer vacation to stay out late. The enthusiasm compounded over eight movies, and the series had some of the biggest midnight openings ever.

That’s part of the reason the early release is a de-facto requirement for summer tentpoles. It’s also why those debuts are happening earlier, sometimes starting at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday or earlier.  A super-early opening is usually reserved for the biggest of the big blockbusters, Bruzzese says, or an extremely competitive weekend.

The fervor around opening weekend dates back decades, Bruzzese says, to deals struck between film studios and movie theaters.

“[Studios] decided … ‘Since we get more of the box office receipts earlier in the run of the movie than later, we’re going to try and front-load it,’ ” he says. “And that’s sort of where opening weekend was born.”

This arrangement is worth it for theaters if they know they can sell out the early shows, Bruzzese says, because that means by adding just a few more staff, they can move way more high-margin concessions than they normally would on a Thursday night. Opening early gives people more opportunities to get to the theater, and maybe even see a movies multiple times, like Lybrand and his wife did.

There are some risks of opening early. People are even more likely to spread the word about a movie they didn’t like, Lieberman says, especially if they’re a diehard fan who has stayed up until the wee hours to see it. Sometimes early word-of-mouth is exactly what studios don’t want Bruzzese says, and they’ll skip the early openings to avoid more bad buzz.

“When you’re front-loaded so heavily with the super-fans and it doesn’t knock it out of the park, I think you definitely do see a big falloff,” Lybrand says. “You’ve got the guy who you know it going to love it in the office, and you ask him what he thought, and he says, ‘Meh, it was OK.’ “

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