Thursday Is Hollywood's New Friday as Weekend Expands

Add an Asterisk to Opening-Weekend Haul for 'Hunger Games: Catching Fire'

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Hollywood studios are squeezing more into their weekend box office reports this year, adding ticket sales from Thursday shows and making big movie openings look even more lucrative.

'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' Credit: Lions Gate

Fourteen films this year with opening-weekend sales of more than $50 million were screened on Thursday nights in U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to data from Fandango.com, the ticket-buying service. That compares with two last year, when most early showings started at 12:01 a.m. on Friday.

The Thursday shows give studios extra business on a slow night and, in some cases, the chance to trumpet record totals with the extra day tossed in to the traditional Friday-to-Sunday tally. While the new accounting method suggests a better reception for a movie, it can muddle comparisons with earlier films.

"It really destroys the concept of, How did the movie do?" said Peter Sealey, a former chief marketing officer for Columbia Pictures.

A recent example is "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," which has led the box office the past two weekends. While Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. "officially" released the film on Friday, Nov. 22, theaters across the U.S. began showings at 8 p.m. the night before.

Lions Gate reported that "Catching Fire" generated $158.1 million in opening weekend sales -- $5.6 million more than the first "Hunger Games" movie, released in March 2012. The new film's total was bolstered by $25.3 million in Thursday night screenings -- including midnight shows -- complicating comparisons with the first "Hunger Games," which didn't play earlier than midnight.

Performance metrics
"We're entering a new period where you can put an asterisk by opening weekends and say it includes Thursday too," said Phil Contrino, an analyst with researcher Boxoffice.com.

The earlier screenings grew more common after a July 2012 shooting at a midnight showing of Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo., left 12 dead, and traffic at late-night shows dropped off. The policy at Fox is to start Thursday shows at 10 p.m or later and include them in the weekend totals, said Chris Aronson, executive VP for distribution at the 21st Century Fox Inc. unit.

"For us, 10 p.m. became the new midnight," Mr. Aronson said in an interview.

This year, virtually every studio has added Thursday showtimes for many of their biggest films, while also running midnight shows. Ultimately the quality of the film will decide whether it takes in a lot of money, not early screenings, Mr. Aronson said.

Representatives of Lions Gate and other major studios declined to comment, as did the Motion Picture Association of America trade association.

Studio reports
Research outfits have gone along, sometimes footnoting that Thursday receipts are included.

"We do the numbers as reported by the studios," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Rentrak. "We don't break out the raw data."

The change has muddied all-time rankings. "Iron Man 3," from Walt Disney Co., had the third-biggest opening of all time, with a $185.4 million haul, according to Box Office Mojo, which ranks films in dozens of categories. That put the film ahead of "Dark Knight Rises," from rival Warner Bros., which didn't have Thursday screenings.

"Does it stretch the box office a little bit? Yes," said James Marsh, an analyst with Piper Jaffray & Co. "It's nice to have a headline, some kind of record opening."

Facebook buzz
But by starting the weekend early, the studios also gain benefits that go beyond bragging rights. Positive comments from Thursday-night moviegoers on Twitter and Facebook help fill seats from Friday to Sunday, said Jeff Bock, an analyst with researcher Exhibitor Relations Co. Kids at school on Friday can tell their friends they've already seen a widely anticipated film, he said.

Through Dec. 3, "Catching Fire" had earned $303.7 million at the domestic box office, versus $258 million for its predecessor after its first 12 days, according to Lions Gate.

~ Bloomberg News ~

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