The Battle of July 4th

Sean Gullette
Originally Published in Brill's Content

April 23. "Hey, I think they should move," growls Dan Fellman ironically, "but that's their decision. We have the goods." The July 4th weekend is two months away, and Warner Brothers' veteran President of Domestic Distribution is steering a metaphorical Mack truck called "The Perfect Storm" toward June 30th, the heart of summer movie season, with another 18-wheeler accelerating into his headlights. "June 30 is our date. We have no interest in moving," says Bob Levin, Sony Pictures Entertainment's President of Worldwide Marketing, about "The Patriot." "If I were them I would move. But I don't make their decisions for them. They're just taking on something that is very, very strong."

Peter Bart, the editor of Variety, has watched this extreme sport of executive posturing and Kasparov-like calculation for years. "It's a game of chicken," he says, "and it often happens that whichever person has the slightly weaker picture says oh my god, we've made a mistake, let's pull it and try for a clearer run."

April 30. With just 60 days left, as focus group results and intelligence about the competition come in, both films still look like viable contenders for box office glory, and both have Achilles' heels. Mel Gibson's star power is awesome, but the "Patriot" is in the risky historical epic genre, and promises a weightier tone than past Gibson orgies of righteous bloodletting. Warners' effects-driven "Perfect Storm" features jaw-dropping special effects from George Lukas' Industrial Light and Magic, in the classic summer-movie genre, but stars the relatively unproven George Clooney. And Sebastian Junger's non-fiction bestseller of tough Gloucester fisherman and apocalyptic waves does not end with the sort of sun-streaked rescue that makes for cheerful word-of-mouth.

Dade Hays, who reports on box office for Variety, says "Perfect Storm might still move a week earlier. Warner is the underdog. But it's pretty late, and they're in a bit of a pickle. The weekend before is Jim Carrey. And the summer is so crammed with titles, that where else would you put it? Dump it in August?"

May 4. Last July 4th provided an example of what Peter Bart says "gives all these tough, cigar-chewing distribution guys nervous breakdowns." As is often the case, competing executives had not seen Warner Brother's "Wild Wild West," when they decided to give Will Smith the big weekend to himself; and to their chagrin, the movie opened with a disappointing $36 million, to a very young audience.

"Patriot" producer Dean Devlin know from summer box office. He made "Godzilla" (1998) and "Independence Day," (July 4, 1996) with his partner, director Roland Emmerich. Each film had a $50 million opening weekend, and together they went on to a combined worldwide gross of over a billion dollars. Is July 4th his lucky day?. "It's a movie about the American revolution," Devlin says "and the country will be celebrating the American revolution. It'd be irresponsible for us to open it any other time."

This year, with the 4th falling on a Tuesday, the 4-day holiday has an estimated $250 million dollars in ticket sales up for grabs, and the potential to launch films towards stratospheric global earnings. The summer gross is a projected $3.8 billion, with eight weekends tightly packed with major studio releases, and despite intense competition, Warner and Sony's executive etiquette insists that there is more than enough money for them all. "I think if either of these films was going to move, they would have moved by now," says Bart.

May 5. But Bart is wrong. Columbia's Distribution chief Jeff Blake announces that he will change the "Patriot" release date, to Wednesday, June 28th. Is it a Machievallian preemptive strike? Blake calls it a "slight technical adjustment" and jokes that "the idea of a seven-day weekend has always been a dream." But TV and newspaper coverage may favor the earlier event; if "Patriot" opens strongly, multiplex owners will be likely to keep it on the biggest screens into the weekend, and word-of-mouth will contribute to weekend ticket lines. "It wouldn't be out of the question for "Patriot" to do 70 or 80 million by the end of that seven-day period. It could be embarrassing for Warner if they get tripled-up, if they get totally skunked," says Dade Hays.

"I'm pleased that we're alone on the 30th," says Warners' Dan Fellman. "Obviously, they've had some second thoughts. We're going to do extremely well." Sony's Bob Levin is also pokerfaced. "Sure, we compete all the time," he laughs. "But you don't take it too much in their face when you win." As D-Day approaches, Blake is sanguine. "Inevitably, the first weekend, we'll be competing. But whatever mano-a-mano considerations there are, the great thing about this business is: a week later we'll all move on to something else."