1997, and the tactical release date battle between Dante’s Peak and Volcano

Dante's Peak and Volcano posters
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When Dante’s Peak and Volcano did battle with each other in 1997, it turned into a last minute battle to see which film would release first.


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It’s been a little while since Hollywood has pulled its old trick of having two movies landing in the same period of time, about roughly the same thing. The go-to for this particular battle tends to be the 1998 showdown between oh-shit-we’re-all-going-to-die rocks from space flicks Deep Impact and Armageddon (a rare battle where both films won, and both films made a lot of money). But as seasoned moviegoers know, the 1990s was rife with this sort of thing: A Bug’s Life vs Antz, for instance, and the 1991 Robin Hood showdown.

One that doesn’t tend to get talked about quite so much now is the duet of bloody-hell-that’s-going-to-erupt blockbusters Dante’s Peak and Volcano. Neither was a staggering box office success, which might account for how they’ve dropped out of modern day cutting edge film discourse. But still, they demonstrated a degree of blockbuster scheduling jostling.

In one corner then was the Linda Hamilton and Pierce Brosnan-headlined Dante’s Peak. This was a Universal Pictures project, directed by Roger Donaldson, and originally it was the film set to land second.

Then, over at 20th Century Fox came Volcano, that had The Bodyguard’s Mick Jackson behind the camera and Tommy Lee Jones in front of it. This was was set, memorably, in Los Angeles, where a surprise volcano popped up. As it does.

Both were set to land in 1997, and there was a real concern that audiences would only have an appetite for one of them. It mattered, therefore, as to who could get their film into cinemas first, and it was a race that neither side wanted to lose.

Stalls were duly set out. Universal had Dante’s Peak on March 7th 1997. Fox meanwhile had gone earlier, and Volcano was set for February 28th 1997. This wasn’t just a case of two films with very similar subject matter they were all set to arrive within a week of each other. After all, neither could really afford to fail: both movies had cost an extraordinary amount of money. Dante’s Peak was costing $115m, and Volcano came with a price tag of $90m.

One of the two studios was going to have to blink.

Executives at Fox first therefore got word that Universal was considering its options towards the back end of 1996. But when Universal ultimately made its bold release date move in December of 1996, even Fox executives were taken aback. What’s more, Universal managed to box Fox into a corner too.

Instead of releasing the information to cinema chains and popping out a press release though, Universal went out swinging to try and seize the initiative. Its marketing department booked full page adverts in three major American publications – USA Today, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times – and announced that Dante’s Peak was going to be out on February 7th.

It was unheard of in 1997 for a movie costing more than $100m to be released in a February slot, at that stage in the history of cinema one of the quieter release windows of the year (unless you had a romcom; Universal did not). But to be so brazen with a release date change also raised eyebrows.

It did two things. Firstly, it firmly committed Universal to that, with a big, brassy statement of public intent it’d be very difficult to wheel back from. And it also left Fox playing catch-up.

What Universal worked out was that Fox had few options. Even if it wanted to move its film prior to the release of Dante’s Peak, it’d be putting a big expensive blockbuster out in January. And was there an audience for something like Volcano at the traditionally awards movie-laden time of the year?

But also, even if it fancied going for January, it couldn’t. Fox had firmly committed to the planned release of the much-loved Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope – The Special Edition, George Lucas’ big screen re-release and re-editing of A New Hope. That was slotted in for January 31st 1997, and also had a bunch of promotional partners in place as well. It would have had to repay said promotional deals in some cases, and also risk upsetting George Lucas if it even thought of nudging the Star Wars date.

Fox did not want to do that, with the studio hopeful that Lucas would hire it for distribution duties on his-then upcoming Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Fox thus had to stick Star Wars where it was, and Lucas did indeed cut a deal with it for the next trilogy of films in the saga with the studio as well. And that meant Volcano was going to lose the race to get to the big screen first. There was little point releasing it as planned at the start of March, as Dante’s Peak would have taken its oxygen away. Fox started mulling moving Volcano to May, and giving it a bit of space.

The problem was there was another disaster movie set for then, with Paramount lining up the movie that would become Hard Rain. Still called The Flood at this stage, it starred Christian Slater and Morgan Freeman, Fox wasn’t to know that Paramount was having problems of its own with the feature, and would ultimately bounce it to January 1998. It just knew it needed to make a decision with the information in front of it at the time.

Fox, ultimately, bit the bullet.

Conscious that The Lost World: Jurassic Park was set to dominate May 1997’s box office – which is ultimately did – it opted to move Volcano to April 1997 instead, to give it a little bit of room before Spielberg’s latest dinosaurs came stomping in. Resigned to giving Universal the head start, the two volcano movies were thus primed and went before audiences. Volcano, it should be noted, had the quite splendid tagline ‘The Coast Is Toast’. I can’t get through the article without applauding that.

Thing is with this story, they both ultimately lost. Dante’s Peak grossed just $67m at the American box office, and just over $100m more outside the US. Over time, with DVD sales and whatnot, the film will have clawed into profit. But for the watching Fox, seeing the first eruption movie tank must have given executives there the willies.

Volcano couldn’t arrest the tide, and if anything, fared worse. Cheaper to make, certainly, but Fox put some marketing muscle behind the movie, and then watched the film fall just short of $50m at the US box office. Another $70m or so from around the world softened the blow, but neither volcano film got to the end of 1997 in profit.

But it did cement the argument that if you’re going to in a head-to-head clash, it’s usually best to be out first. That’s why DreamWorks Animation boss attracted the ire of Pixar just a year later when he shifted the computer animation Antz to a release ahead of the latter’s A Bug’s Life. But that one’s a story for another time…

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