Paramount’s “Iron Man” is sure to be the next picture to unspool with 4,000-plus engagements when the comic book actioner launches the boxoffice summer on May 2. With major releases playing on three or more screens in many multiplexes, the actual screen count for the Robert Downey Jr. starrer could see a screen count twice as big as its playdates.

Interestingly, if “Iron Man” plays well throughout May, that might make it tough for the studio to reach the 4,000-theater benchmark with its May 23 tentpole, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Knowledgeable industryites realize that would have zero impact on how the Indy sequel bows, but it could make for some awkward conversations between Par brass and the film’s helmer, Steven Spielberg.

“Directors will ask for 15 things on a picture — more money, final cut, so on and so on,” a studio exec said. “The one time you can answer their demands with a ‘yes’ is when they say they want to open their picture as big as possible. And that’s why it goes on.”

Meanwhile, even the broad rollout of digital distribution won’t make these extra print costs go away anytime soon. That’s because studios have agreed to pay “virtual print fees” on such releases to help fund the installation of digital projection equipment in movie theaters.

So figuring on an average cost of, say, $1,000 a print, the difference between a 2,500-engagement release and a 4,000-theater run can represent $1.5 million misspent. Multiply that by dozens of summer tentpoles, and it starts to add up to real money.

Yet even contrarians on megawide releasing acknowledge there’s a range of foolishness that can be ascribed to such outlays.

In relative terms, megawide releasing makes the most sense for family films. Such pics play so broadly that even the smallest theater in the tiniest town might prove just lucrative enough to book for opening weekend.

“With PG family films, there’s no town too small to play,” one distribution exec said. “And in bigger markets, you want even the smaller neighborhood theaters, because you can gross enough with those to pay for the print (with family pics).”

The first film ever to bow in more than 3,000 playdates was Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible,” unspooling in 3,012 locations on May 22, 1996.

DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek 2″ was the first film to unspool in more than 4,000 playdates, when it debuted on May 19, 2004, in 4,163 locations. There were five pics that opened with 4,000 or more engagements in the summer, starting with Sony’s “Spider-Man 3″ on May 4 (4,252 playdates) and running through Warner Bros.’ July 11 opener of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (4,285).

“When you’re talking about pictures like that with (prints and advertising) budgets of $50 million to $60 million, what’s another million dollars in print costs to try to get another million gross?” a distribution exec mused recently. “They always say the smallest part of the P & A is the P, and that’s still true.”

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