The third Matrix movie’s Zero Hour premiere was an early example of a day-and-date global release for a major studio movie – we look back on Warner Bros’ grand gesture.
Following its release in 1999, there was no doubt that The Matrix was a global phenomenon. The Wachowskis’ awe-inspiring mash-up of special effects, martial arts, and heady sci-fi became a massive sleeper hit for Warner Bros, ranking as the fourth highest-grossing film of the year at the worldwide box office by the time it came out in all its theatrical markets. The film was huge on DVD too, becoming the first to shift a million copies in the early days of that format.
The hype for the two Matrix sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, was accordingly gigantic. Warner green-lit both sequels as a back-to-back production in August 1999, as a time-honoured method of contracting cast and crew for multiple sequels without having to re-negotiate salaries. Including a bumper 18-month period of principal photography, the two sequels would take just under four years to make it to cinemas.
Released six months apart from one another in 2003, they were the main attractions in a so-called ‘year of the Matrix’ that also included a videogame and an anthology of animated short films. When the first of the sequels arrived in May, it obliterated Terminator 2’s previous opening weekend record for an R-rated film and went on to top its global box-office total as well, becoming 2003’s third highest-grossing movie overall.
While the second instalment had even more groundbreaking action and visual effects sequences, Reloaded had a more lukewarm critical reception than its predecessor. We can argue about the relative merits of the Matrix sequels another time, but one of the key reasons why the film didn’t land as well as its predecessor was that it’s designed as one half of a story, ending with what producer Joel Silver hyped as “a moment of true filmus interruptus”, leaving audiences with a cliffhanger and a post-credits teaser trailer for an ending that wouldn’t arrive until November.
Perhaps the anticlimactic air is partly what led Warner Bros to provide a truly unique day-and-date release strategy for The Matrix Revolutions, which was released not only on the same date but at the same time – Wednesday 5th November 2003 at 2:00 p.m. GMT – in 109 different territories spanning six continents. Bear in mind, this was before the widespread standardisation of digital distribution, meaning that a whopping 18,000 35mm film prints had to be produced and shipped to cinemas to achieve a simultaneous release.
Warner’s marketing department dubbed the global premiere event ‘Zero Hour’. Even if it was conceived as a marketing stunt, this was a major step for a studio-produced Hollywood movie. So, although the third Matrix movie isn’t always fondly remembered, its release marked several landmarks in blockbuster distribution and closed the gap between US and global release dates to an extent that many filmgoers take for granted nowadays.
It’s easy to forget how the window between domestic and international releases have narrowed in the last decade or two as a response to movie piracy and audience demand. It used to be that UK filmgoers could wait as long as nine to 12 months before some Hollywood movies arrived in cinemas on our shores, although admittedly, that window was usually shorter for the biggest films.
For instance, let’s look at The Matrix. Thanks to a canny marketing campaign, the film became a sleeper hit in US cinemas when it landed on 31st March 1999. It arrived in UK cinemas on 11th June, slap-bang in the middle of the excruciating two-month gap between the American and British release dates for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which enabled it to top the box office for two weeks running. The film’s final stop was in Russia on 14th October, a few weeks after it had already come out on DVD in the States.
Warner was savvier to both the global audience and the piracy problem by the time summer 2003 came around and The Matrix Reloaded tightened that distribution window right up. It arrived on 15th May in the US (and then one week later in the UK) and completed its international roll-out in China on 19th July. While distribution isn’t relative to distance, it went around the world in the time it took the first film to cross the Atlantic.
However, that same month, 20th Century Fox laid a claim to the widest global release of all time with X-Men 2, releasing the Marvel mutant sequel in 80 different markets on the same day. The bumper opening weekend haul of that film ensured that other studios would follow this strategy in the years that followed, but Warner was ideally placed to attempt something similar with Revolutions later that year.
Other than X-Men, the franchise that apparently influenced Warner’s choice of a November was Peter Jackson’s then-ongoing Lord Of The Rings trilogy, another back-to-back(-to-back) production that had enjoyed huge acclaim and box office success over successive years.
It’s been reported that the Wachowskis wanted the studio to release Revolutions in June, a month into Reloaded’s cinematic run, but Warner had one eye on how the Rings movies were paced out annually and aimed for November instead. Fans around the world would have to wait six months, but few would have to wait longer than that. After all, that exposition-heavy climax in the Architect’s office inadvertently foreshadows a plan to put Neo on as many screens as possible…
Indeed, press releases about the Zero Hour premiere from the time call the strategy an “unprecedented distribution scenario” and as far as we can remember, there hasn’t been anything quite like it since either.
Said Silver, “we received such an overwhelming response to Reloaded from audiences around the globe that the Wachowskis wanted to give our fans the chance to experience the final piece of the Matrix puzzle at the same time in every major city worldwide.”
The emphasis on the worldwide audience is significant here because as mentioned, Zero Hour was 2:00 p.m. GMT. Not an ideal time for a mid-week cinema trip in the UK perhaps, but it put the first screenings for the two biggest American movie markets, Los Angeles and New York, at 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. respectively.
The time will likely have been chosen for the same reason as the Academy Award nominations are usually announced around 6 in the morning every year – with an eye on international press coverage rather than domestic audiences. The strategy extended to the press circuit too, with stars Keanu Reeves and Jada Pinkett-Smith among those who saw in their new movie at the Tokyo premiere, rather than in LA.
There were the usual concessions to traditional marketing and releasing – the movie had been screened for the press in advance and proper red carpet premieres had taken place at LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall and Sydney’s Opera House a week or so before Zero Hour – but with all distribution considerations in mind, this was quite an effort to put into a scheduling gimmick.
Another landmark related to this release was that Zero Hour also applied to 60 IMAX screens worldwide. Reloaded had arrived in IMAX cinemas three weeks after its US release date, so this made Revolutions the first live-action film from a major studio to have a day-and-date release on the large-format screens (Disney’s Treasure Planet pipped it to being the first feature overall, just over a year earlier) thus pioneering another strategy that’s commonplace today.
Of course, it’s worth noting that not every market got the film at the same time after all. Kazakhstan, Malta, Bahrain, and Kuwait all had Revolutions in cinemas by the end of 2003. Interestingly, the other outlier was Egypt, where the previous two films had been subject to scrutiny by the film censorship board for both their violent and religious content.
Where the first film had been controversial upon its Egyptian release and Reloaded had been banned outright, Revolutions was approved with only minor cuts for an April 2004 release. But in one of those quietly devastating notes that also doubles as a review, Egypt’s chief film censor told The Associated Press that “[Revolutions] depends on action and high technology… without focusing on philosophic and religious meditations”, unlike the headier content of the first two films. Ouch.
All catty censor notes aside, The Matrix Revolutions scored a colossal five-day opening, earning $204m worldwide in its first five days on release. By 2003 standards, that was a big deal and the ability of tentpole movies to clear that bar quicker is down to release strategies more in line with this one than the previously stripped schedule.
The home release of Reloaded in October will likely have factored in the decision to wait until another financial quarter to wrap up the story, but by contrast with Hobbit business, Revolutions’ box-office total proved a little front-heavy. In the end, the third film’s total theatrical gross fell a little short of the first film’s receipts, but it was still enough to power the Year of the Matrix’s theatrical showing across the billion-dollar mark.
While the simultaneous release strategy showed an understanding how film fans were widely using the internet to discuss movies with each other around the world, (particularly regarding spoilers) they may not have anticipated that the discussions weren’t going to be all that positive.
Alongside some vocal fans’ disappointment, Revolutions has far more negative critical reviews than either of the other two instalments of the trilogy. As for general audiences, anyone left confused by the end of Reloaded probably didn’t warm to it during the six-month gap. For our money, both Matrix sequels are better than they’re painted and it’s a hell of a flex for an action movie franchise to deal in themes like the futility of war and the need to break violent cycles, but we’ll save that argument for another time.
Since the trilogy was wrapped up, franchises have accelerated even further. Two Matrix films in six months was unprecedented at the time, but Marvel Studios has put out an average of two event movies per year for the last decade. Unsurprisingly, Disney topped the widest global new release record twice last year, with Avengers: Endgame and Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, but it was the former that smashed records everywhere it showed, opening to $1.2bn in three days in April 2019.
On a technical level, the rain-soaked third act of Revolutions anticipates some of the effects-heavy superhero fights we’ve started to see in many recent blockbusters, but the film’s real influence is more institutional. Zero Hour may have been conceived a way to drum up publicity for another sequel, but it also set a precedent for more streamlined scheduling of Hollywood movies around the world, especially in terms of IMAX releases.
From this point on, the ballooning of opening weekend totals around the world has directly influenced what films get made and how much is invested in them. Almost 20 years later, the upcoming, as-yet-untitled fourth Matrix film will be co-written and directed by Lana Wachowski, and upon its release, it will enter a global movie market that’s become more franchise-saturated as a result of releases like the previous film in the series. Whether it has anything to revolutionise that market as previous entries did, we’ll just have to wait and see.
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