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Set Up to Fail: A History of Movies That Debuted Against Blockbusters

As you may have heard — if you have watched a television, been to a movie, visited a website, or looked at the side of a bus in the past two months — there’s a motion picture coming out tomorrow called The Avengers, and it is expected to be quite the big hit. What you might not be aware of this that there are two other movies hitting multiplexes this weekend: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a comedy/drama from Shakespeare in Love director John Madden (no, not that John Madden) featuring the Anglophile wet-dream cast of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Bill Nighy; and something called A Little Bit of Heaven, a romantic comedy in which Kate Hudson has cancer, Peter Dinklage is a male prostitute, and Whoopi Goldberg is God. No, seriously.

Those two films could be most diplomatically deemed “counter-programming,” that old Hollywood notion of putting out movies designed to appeal to audiences far different from those of the big blockbusters. The problem is, a movie like The Avengers defies counter-programming; it’s a movie that cuts across demos and marketing quadrants. Everybody wants to see that movie. (I, for one, know far more young women who are interested in seeing The Avengers than another goddamn Kate Hudson movie.) What you often end up with instead are kamikaze movies — films whose release opposite a major, hype-driven blockbuster indicates a competing studio is just giving up and burning off a movie that they have to release sometime (maybe even for contractual reasons), so this is as good a time as any.

There’s a long, strange history to be found in tracking the movies that opened against the sure things; we’ll take a look at a few prime examples after the jump.

THE DATE: May 27, 1977
THE BLOCKBUSTER: Smokey and the Bandit
THE COUNTER-PROGRAMMING: Star Wars
THE RESULTS: Believe it or not, the movie to beat on Memorial Day weekend, 1977 was Smokey and the Bandit, the country-fried truck-and-cops action/comedy from director Hal Needham and star Burt Reynolds. Smokey was opening in over 300 theaters on Friday, May 27th — a pretty puny number by today’s standards, but a flashy wide release for 1977. 20th Century Fox didn’t have anywhere near that many lined up for Star Wars, a sci-fi space opera from the director of American Graffiti; to try to get a little bit of a jump on Burt, they moved the release up two days, to Wednesday, May 25. Star Wars opened in 32 theaters that Wednesday, with a few more screens added Thursday and Friday for a total opening weekend engagement in 43 theaters. The most high-profile of those, Mann’s Chinese, was only booked because William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, originally slated to open that weekend, was pushed back a month to complete post-production. But Star Wars, as you well know, became the weekend’s runaway, word-of-mouth #1 hit; lines went around the block, more screens were added by the handful, and it ended up becoming the year’s biggest hit, with over $300 million in box office. (The Chinese famously kicked it out after a month to honor the Sorcerer booking, but that film tanked and Star Wars returned to the theater for nearly a year.) But Smokey didn’t exactly suffer; it was the year’s fourth-highest grosser, bringing in over $125 million and begetting two sequels.

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