'Potter' Moves the Pieces

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In the world of Harry Potter, Wizard's Chess is a magical game in which the pieces move themselves when a player tells them what to do. In the world of Hollywood, a different kind of chess game is being played, with Harry Potter as the king.

It all started with "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the sixth movie in the most popular film series ever.

It was supposed to open this Friday, a good date for movie premieres because it is the weekend before Thanksgiving.

But then Warner Brothers Studios decided to release the film next summer instead. Potter fans got angry, but other movie studios became excited. Realizing they would not have to compete with Harry Potter, they started moving around the opening dates of their own movies.

The whole drama showed how Hollywood executives carefully plot when to release movies.

"It's a big chess game. The date that a movie opens is crucial," said movie analyst Paul Dergarabedian. A studio "can't control audience behavior. But it can decide when [a movie] opens."

Moviemakers believe their best chance to get the biggest audiences is the first weekend, Dergarabedian said. He runs a company called Media by Numbers that tracks movie ticket sales.

The best opening dates are around holidays and during the summer. So when Warner Brothers officials first set Nov. 21 as the date to open "Half-Blood Prince," they knew that was one of the busiest movie times of the year for a sure hit.

After all, the five Harry Potter movies released so far have all been among the top 25 worldwide box-office moneymakers, raking in about $4.5 billion.

But when Warner Brothers made its plans for the sixth Potter film, it didn't know that another of its movies, "The Dark Knight," released July 17, would become one of the most successful movies ever.

Studio officials said they realized they were happy with one blockbuster this year and wanted to try to make sure they had one next year. So on Aug. 14, they pushed back Harry Potter -- to July 17, 2009.

Angry Potter fans protested, but other movie studios saw an opportunity:

· Hours after the Potter move, Walt Disney Studios moved the opening of the animated 3-D comedy "Bolt" (about a dog who thinks he has superpowers) from Nov. 28 to this Friday.

· The next day, Summit Entertainment moved the vampire movie "Twilight" from Dec. 21 to this Friday.

· Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of DreamWorks Animation, called the Potter move "the single greatest Christmas gift ever in my 35 years in the movie business." Why? Because there will be less competition for "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," which earned $118 million in its first two weeks.

· "Land of the Lost," which was supposed to open July 17, 2009, was moved to June 5 by Universal Studios.

Why? To avoid competing with Harry Potter, of course!

-- Valerie Strauss

© 2008 The Washington Post Company