Why do studios stagger the release of movies like ‘Thor: The Dark World’?

Marvel

As superhero fans on this side of the pond wait patiently for the release of Marvel’s “Thor: The Dark World," the movie is already enjoying huge success in the U.K. and Europe.

During the last week of October, the action-fantasy film starring Chris Hemsworth was released in Britain, France, Germany, Australia, and countless other markets, and it recently crossed the $100 million box office mark internationally. That means a whole lot of people have gotten to see Thor and Loki back in action before North American moviegoers. Feeling left out?

In the age of instant streaming and digital projection/distribution, why do studios still stagger movie releases? What good reasons are there for a big movie like the “Thor” sequel not to have simultaneous global release?

In the case of “Thor,” the reason for the staggered release is pretty straightforward: Competition.

Summit

Studios spend big bucks researching when, where, and how movies should be released in order to optimize box office performance. Releasing “The Dark World” last week in North America would have put the film in direct competition with “Ender’s Game,” another major offering that Marvel believed might steal the Norse demi-god’s thunder. “Thor” came out in the U.K. and elsewhere a week before North America because “Ender’s Game” also came out a week early in those territories.

In 2012, James Bond’s latest adventure "Skyfall" received a similar early international release. The film premiered in the U.K. on October 26, a full two weeks before it bowed in North American theatres. The reason? Mostly to keep the film out of competition with other Warner Bros. releases like “Argo” and “Cloud Atlas.”

Of course, there was a time when staggered movie releases actually had more to do with logistics than competition. Back when film distributors had to strike 35 mm movie prints and physically ship them to locations around the world, a few weeks between the North American, European, and Asian releases made sense. You actually had to get prints to far-flung corners of the globe!

Columbia Pictures

There's also the issue of localization. English-language films are almost always dubbed or subtitled before their international releases, and some countries (specifically China) impose strict censorship on certain content. All of this takes time. Add to that the promotional commitments by the cast and crew (actors and directors often go on worldwide press tours to promote a movie and need to be booked far in advance) and you begin to understand why distributing and releasing films is not so simple.

Though digital technology means a simultaneous global movie release is possible (big summer tentpoles still occasionally do it in certain territories), the major Hollywood studios are increasingly taking into account the regional factors listed above when they build their release schedules.

There are disadvantages to the staggered release, though. While studios may avoid putting their movies in competition with other films by toying with release dates, a staggered schedule encourages content piracy. Thanks to its early release in the Europe, there are already pirated versions of “Thor: The Dark World” floating around the Internet. Sure, it's terrible quality and was shot on someone's handheld camera, but you can be guaranteed that the downloaded cam version is going to keep at least few people from seeing "Thor" on the big screen. Why go to the movies when you've got the movie (albeit a terrible version of it) on your computer or TV? It's a sad reality, but that's the kind of thinking and viewing habits a staggered release engenders.

"Thor: The Dark World" hits Canadian theatres on Nov. 8.