Two years from today, the biggest showdown in box office history is set to take place. At least, that's what the tentative release schedule would have you believe.
In what amounts to a very high stakes game of chicken, Disney and Warner Bros. have scheduled superhero movies Captain America 3 and an Untitled Superman/Batman Film on May 6, 2016. Over the past few months, various representatives on the corporate and creative side have indicated that both sides intend to stick with this date.
Of course, there's a zero percent chance that actually happens. But more on that later. First, let's take a trip down release date memory lane. How did we get here? Last June, Disney scheduled an untitled Marvel movie for May 6, 2016. This would be the 13th movie in the "Marvel Cinematic Universe", and the seventh to kick off the Summer movie season. At the time, though, it was unclear what exactly that movie would be. A fourth Iron Man movie? A third Thor movie? A new character like Dr. Strange?
This "placeholder" strategy is one the studios have been employing more-and-more lately. Essentially, they stake out a release date at some point in the distant future without knowing exactly what movie will be taking that spot. To see how prevalent this is, take a look at the 2017 & Beyond section of Mojo's release schedule: there are currently 27 movies on there, with two-thirds (18) being untitled placeholders ("Untitled Disney Animation", "Untitled Fox/Marvel", etc.).
At Comic-Con in July, Warner Bros. announced that the Man of Steel sequel would actually pit Superman against Batman, which is a popular DC Comics storyline that could lead in to a Justice League movie (DC's version of The Avengers). A month later, they set the movie for a July 2015 release. Warner Bros. has had a ton of success around that time period: from 2007 to 2012, they alternated between a Harry Potter movie and a Christopher Nolan movie. The combined worldwide haul for those six movies? Over $6.1 billion.
Eventually, it became apparent that the July 2015 date was going to be difficult to hit. So, Warner Bros. made the bold choice of pushing the movie back to May 6, 2016—the same date as the Marvel movie. Instead of bouncing off the date, Disney dug in its heels: a day after Captain America: The Winter Soldier's strong opening, they announced that Captain America 3 would take that spot. Can both movies open the same date? Theoretically, they could face off on May 6th. The biggest weekend ever is Dec. 25-27, 2009, when the Top 12 combined to earn $259.9 million. That's significantly more than the combined debuts of Man of Steel and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, meaning theaters could handle the demand.
However, both studios are smart enough to know that the audience for these two movies is nearly identical, and a large percentage of these moviegoers will not pay to see both on the same weekend. Each of these studios is part of a publicly-traded company, and it's hard to imagine shareholders would be okay with the potential losses that would come from a stand-off like this. With a lot at stake here—each will likely have a budget north of $200 million—one of the studios will eventually acquiesce and find another date. Which one will move, and to where? This past weekend, Captain America: The Winter Soldier passed Man of Steel at the worldwide box office. Add in a boost from Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it seems like Captain America has the stronger hand right now.
Of course, this isn't Captain America versus Superman alone; he also has to contend with Batman, who has a very strong track record at the box office. Pitting Superman against Batman will make it one of the most anticipated movie events in history (even if Man of Steel was a letdown for some).
Conventional wisdom suggests that one of two scenarios occurs. First, one of the movies bounces up a month to the first weekend of April. This would be similar to the Captain America: The Winter Soldier versus The Amazing Spider-Man 2 situation this year, which seemed to benefit the April release (Captain America). Captain America 3 is already working on a condensed timeline, though—it's not easy to get a quality superhero sequel out in two years—and Warner Bros. might balk at releasing one of their biggest movies ever outside of the Summer.
The other option is that one of the movies gets pushed back to July. There's an untitled Marvel movie on the second weekend that could theoretically get replaced by Captain America 3. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has Guy Ritchie's King Arthur movie later in the month, and that could very easily be moved to accommodate their Batman/Superman flick.
Of course, those are the two most obvious options—it's entirely possible that a more unconventional decision is made. When might this happen? Changing release dates isn't exactly an uncommon practice. Dating back to the beginning of 2012, 73 movies have earned over $100 million at the domestic box office. Only 29 of those titles opened on their original release dates (to be fair, seven of those changes were one week or less).
With both sides digging in their heels, it would be surprising if a change occured in the near future. Distributors don't need to formally book screens with exhibitors until the final months leading up to release. Licensing agreements and marketing plans kick in to gear sooner than that, though it's unlikely anyone really needs to know for sure more than a year ahead of time. At the earliest, look for an announcement around Comic-Con in July; at the latest, this situation should be resolved by the time Avengers: Age of Ultron opens next May.