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03.03.11

For Movie Studios, March Is Hot

March was once a dumping ground for crappy movies. But after a few fluke successes there, and too much summer competition, it’s now the start of blockbuster season. Chris Lee reports.

When it comes to movies, March used to be synonymous with a kind of seasonal affective disorder: late winter depression brought on not by the absence of sunlight, but by the dire lack of quality offerings at the multiplex. Trapped, as it is, between Awards Season’s pomp and prestige and summertime, when studios trot out their blockbusters, March was considered movie purgatory. A dumping ground for crappy films like College Road Trip and Agent Cody Banks 2.

Watch Trailers for Rango, Red Riding Hood, and Other March Releases

But in March 2006, a pair of releases–the kid flick Ice Age: The Meltdown and a little Spartan thriller called 300–came out of nowhere to rake in around $200 million a piece and awaken the industry forever to the month’s commercial potential. Last March, Alice in Wonderland opened to become the second biggest movie of the year, grossing over $1 billion worldwide. And the upshot in 2011? A virtual stampede of big budget crowd pleasers and unabashed event films has migrated to the year’s third month.

Among them: Rango, an expensive, computer-animated animal romp that reteams Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski with Johnny Depp, the sexed-up fairy tale thriller Red Riding Hood (directed by Twilight’s Catherine Hardwicke and similarly aimed at teen girl fans), and Sucker Punch, an impressionistic ninja-jailbait-hotties jail-break movie from 300 director, Zack Snyder.

Heading off a log-jam of extra-terrestrial action movies due out this summer–in an era when tent-pole movies literally clog the calendar–Columbia Pictures will release the alien Armageddon epic Battle: Los Angeles. It’s a $70 million movie that comes with all the special FX bells and fan-boy whistles you’d expect from a popcorn season movie season arriving on March 11.

“March used to be the dead time for sure,” said Marc Weinstock, worldwide marketing and distribution chief for Sony Pictures, Columbia’s parent company. “But now it’s gotten to be a really good time to release films. You’re coming out of Academy season. You’ve had your Social Network, your King’s Speech. Now you want to have some fun. And if you’re the first popcorn movie out, you hit.”

Seth Rogen–who voices an extra-terrestrial with attitude in the $50 million sci-fi comedy Paul, in theaters March 18–feels release dates don’t generally augur commercial success (or failure) like they once did, especially in post- Paul Blart: Mall Cop era. That 2009 film came out in January, a time generally thought to be the dumping ground, to gross $183 million.

“I try not to think about this stuff,” Rogen said. “But it doesn’t seem to mean what it used to. Paul Blart opened up in January and made way more than anybody expected. Then there’re a lot of movies that come out in summer that don’t do as well as people expect either.”

Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution Dan Fellman recalled a time 15 years ago when nary a big budget film would be set loose before the third week in June. Now, he pointed out, every year the number of tent-pole offerings increases with a “true glut of event movies” in March. Nonetheless, Warner Bros. has programmed two high profile releases this month–the aforementioned Sucker Punch (its estimated budget: between $85 million and $100 million) and Red Riding Hood (a $42 million price tag), with school vacations playing a crucial X-factor.

“You have spring breaks staggered at different times for different schools. We want to take advantage of that,” Fellman said. “In summer more bodies are available every day. But if you can capture a larger marketshare of a smaller market, you overcome that obstacle.”

In picking Rango’s March drop date, Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore explained the end-game was to “really stand out,” rather than head-bang in summertime’s event movie battle royale–to grab a tidy nine-figure box-office take (as early intel called “tracking” indicates Rango–which opens today–just may do) before the likes of Transformers: Dark of the Moon or Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides attempt to commandeer audiences during this year’s hottest months.

“We’ve done a good job of educating consumers that big movies can come any time of year,” Moore said. “Now there have been a lot coming out of [the March] movie window. People are looking at this as the early start of summer.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the budget for Battle: Los Angeles.

Chris Lee is a senior entertainment writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. He previously worked as an entertainment and culture reporter for the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in Vibe, Premiere and Details magazines and has been plagiarized in The Sunday Tribune of Ireland and The Trinidad Guardian.