Bell Tolls for “Zero Hour”

Even before the box office numbers were in, The Matrix, the final installment in the Warner Brothers-distributed Matrix trilogy, had joined its predecessors in the "groundbreaking" category: The film was the first in history to be released at the exact same moment in every major city in the world.

For the past couple of years, U.S. movie studios have been experimenting with "day-and-date" theatrical release schedules, wherein films are debuted on the same day (or date, depending on time differences) in all territories. This new strategy came about primarily in response to a sudden and substantial spike in piracy, brought on by the rise of the DVD format and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Internet file-sharing programs.

But Warner Brothers execs decided that The Matrix - expected to be revolutionary at the box office - was worthy of even greater protective measures. So, on November 5, the film premiered in 65 territories simultaneously, meaning it was on screens in Los Angeles at 6 a.m., New York at 9 a.m., London at 2 p.m., Moscow at 5 p.m., Tokyo at 11 p.m. and so on.

Warner Brothers has referred to the tactic as a "zero hour" opening: a synchronizing of the world clock to mark the start of this major motion picture "event."

In the past it was believed that some air between the domestic release of a film and its overseas bow was critical to building buzz and excitement. And, for the most part, that logic still applies. In some cases, however, the reputation of a new flick precedes it: Sony Pictures' Spider-Man, for instance, released in May 2002, didn't need to wait for an American box office bonanza to entice foreign audiences: based on one of history's most successful comic book characters, just about everyone everywhere was waiting with baited breath for the much-hyped, effects-laden celluloid version.

It's true, though, that studios have been most likely to go day-and-date only with anticipated sequels to bona fide blockbusters: last summer's X2: X-Men United was bowed on the same date in 93 markets - at that time the most ambitious single day release in movie history - but it's predecessor, X-Men, had grossed over $137 million abroad. Not much of a gamble there.

The Matrix comes from a similarly fruitful heritage. The first installment in the trilogy, simply called The Matrix, actually developed into a mega-hit after passing onto DVD, way back in 1999. Considered a catalyst behind the DVD craze, it remains one of the most successful DVD releases of all time. Accordingly, when The Matrix Reloaded, the second episode in the trilogy, finally hit big screens in May of this year, fans were frothing at the mouths. The flick took in $42.5 million of domestic b.o. on its opening day - the best first day performance in history.

But Warner Brothers didn't opt for a strict day-and-date approach with Reloaded, instead employing a condensed release schedule that saw the movie bow in most territories within three weeks of its U.S. premiere.

WB distrib execs say the amped-up zero hour strategy for Revolutions will allow the studio to fully capitalize on the success of the previous two installments, while minimizing the impact of inevitable piracy.

And Warner Brothers may be onto something. In fact, when Fox debuted Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones day-and-date in May 2002, distrib execs beamed that there was no pirated releasing prior to the film's official premiere. If all goes according to plan, then, the zero hour strategy should only further improve the picture for distribs.

But one still has to wonder: how many Angelenos actually rolled out of bed before dawn to see a heady and decidedly dark action flick? How many New Yorkers went in late to school or work, and how many Londoners left early? If day-and-date releasing virtually eliminates pre-debut piracy, is zero hour releasing necessary, or just a way to generate extra stir in the press?

Warner Brothers execs say the zero hour maneuver certainly can't hurt, and, more than that, they're looking at the concept as something that's just plain fun. Said domestic distribution president, Dan Fellman, "It gives everyone who wants to see the movie an opportunity to see it at the same time. It's just a very unique and unusual idea. And it's a fun publicity approach to launching a movie."

He admitted that not too many people in California or New York would wake early to see the first screenings of the film, but emphasized that within a 24-hour period, "17,000 prints of the film will be working. Even though there are some places where the film won't open at the [zero hour], it will be opening everywhere on the same day. Nobody's ever come close to that."

Warner Brothers pushed the boundary even farther with Revolutions by releasing it in large-screen Imax theaters in the U.S. on the same day the mainstream 35mm version opened - another first in movie history. (In the case of Reloaded, there was a three week gap between the two format debuts.)

Will this tactic have an affect on piracy or overall receipts? It all depends on how one looks at it. The gap between the Imax and 35mm releases of Reloaded may have been too long to keep most people's interest in the film at a level high enough to bring them back for a second helping. But Imax provides a superior viewing experience in the minds of many movie fans, and someone who goes straight to a large screen showing of Revolutions may never bother with the 35mm version.

Still, more screens on opening day is more screens on opening day, and Revolutions is likely to make the record books for more reasons than its zero hour release.

But while day-and-date and/or zero hour releasing may be a big step in the right direction, there's another problem to deal with when it comes to piracy: inside leaks. The studios' proposed "screener" ban, which would eliminate the practice of sending out VHS/DVD copies of yet-to-be-released films to Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members, as well as critics, has yielded protest from all corners of the industry, with the independent organization IFP drumming up support from big-name actors and the Writers Guild of America voicing its opinion on the matter in no uncertain terms. Studios and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) are still trying to work out a compromise, but inside leaks will have to be dealt with somehow if piracy is indeed to be contained.