NEW YORK - Scheduling the release of a summer movie isn't exactly a science. It clearly isn't an art, either. It's more akin to a contact sport:
Seize the advantageous position, sustain as little damage as possible, and score.
All of which makes this weekend's opening of both "Red 2" and "R.I.P.D." a little like sacking your own quarterback. Both films are action-thrillers. Both are about over-age law enforcers (in "R.I.P.D.," some are so old, they're dead). And both make a virtue of their, shall we say, mature stars.
Those stars include Bruce Willis (58), Anthony Hopkins (75), John Malkovich (59) and Helen Mirren (67) in "Red 2" and Jeff Bridges (63) and Kevin Bacon (55) in "R.I.P.D.," which, by the way, stands for "Rest in Peace Department."
It may not make a huge difference at the box office, but both films also feature the less-than-prolific Mary-Louise Parker, who has a solid base among discriminating male viewers but is better known for her work in cable TV's "Weeds."
Add to all this the fact that Robert Schwentke, the director of Universal's "R.I.P.D.," had directed the original "Red" of 2010 from Summit Entertainment and for whatever reason (Schwentke didn't want to talk about it) lost the sequel to director Dean Parisot.
True, "R.I.P.D." pairs Bridges with 36-year-old former Sexiest Man Alive Ryan Reynolds, but as summer films go, the movies share notable audience overlap - and on two fronts, says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
"These films skew older due to the presence of Jeff Bridges in "R.I.P.D." and the older cast of "Red 2," he said. "And the bigger similarity is that they are both action crime comedies."
Assuming there's no ill will involved, a lot of coincidences are in play here, said distribution consultant Richard Abramowitz, who teaches film production at New York University and runs the film company Abramorama. "It seems like too big a mistake to be a mistake."
But the "Red 2"/"R.I.P.D." collision may simply be a symptom of the state of Hollywood. There have been very few weekends since May that haven't been dominated by a big-budget, major-studio release - a so-called "tent-pole" picture. There was "Iron Man 3" on May 2, "The Great Gatsby" on May 10, "Star Trek Into Darkness" on May 15, "Fast & Furious 6" on May 24, "After Earth" on May 31 and so on.
Tellingly, when studios chose to expand a debut weekend with a weekday opening - "Iron Man 3" was on a Thursday; "Star Trek" was on a Wednesday - a rash of movies seemed to rush in to fill the Friday void. In fact, the Fridays following "IM3" and "STID" were among the more crowded of the summer, with 15 and 11 openings, respectively.
But the idea that studios have that kind of flexibility in picking a release date is really a fallacy: Releases are set as early as possible, sometimes even during pre-production, and when a film of a certain stature grabs a date, everyone else starts jockeying for position.
And there are only so many positions.
"Where were they going to go?" asked Greg Laemmle, of the eponymous Los Angeles-based theater chain, referring to "Red 2" and "R.I.P.D."
"You've got `Pacific Rim' on July 11, `Wolverine' in July 26. It may well be there was no place else to go, and there's so much in the pipeline that they'd be pushed right out of the summer," Laemmle said.
So if the studios behind "Reds 2" and "R.I.P.D." were trying to put their movies into the summer season, this was probably the first weekend they could find without a gigantic, globally recognized title in place.
"R.I.P.D." had already announced a July 19th release when Summit parent Lionsgate decided to move "Red 2" onto that same date, said Universal spokeswoman Kori Bernards. "You'll have to ask them what that was about."
Lionsgate had no comment for this story, but insiders say both Lionsgate and Universal seem to have realized their movies had a better chance against each other, despite having to share the same older audience, than against a summer blockbuster like next weekend's "Wolverine," for instance. And neither one of the films was big enough to scare the other off the date.
The result is a faceoff between two pictures going for the same demographic, and in a way, that's too bad, especially for audiences looking for a break from robots, spacemen and Johnny Depp wearing a dead crow on his head.
"Any studio that targets the under-served adult audience is smart," said Anne Thompson, who writes Thompson on Hollywood for Indiewire.
So we have two studios well aware of that and their two movies playing chicken in a game where it's very expensive to blink.
"It's very, very rare that a release date gets postponed," said Robert Bella, who has supervised post-production on such films as "Lincoln," "War Horse" and "The Help." "Anything can be done if you have enough time and money, of course, but those release dates get set as far in advance as possible and it's always a mad dash the closer you get to the target date," he said.
"Some movies can tell you a year from now, or two years, when they're going to open, and then everyone else starts reacting," Bella continued. "I bet it won't be long before the next `Star Wars' announces its date."
At which point producers of other films eyeing that same date will no doubt scurry to their calendars and start looking for alternatives.
John Anderson is a freelance film writer based in New York.