Who decides when a film is released? We know that the director and producer work in tandem, but who specifically, job role would be preferable here, decides precisely when a film will be released into the wild? For some reason, I had in my head that there was a large meeting, where they would decide exactly when a film was released into cinemas - what person, with what job role, decides this, and does this person work as someone who has nothing to do with the films production in the first place?
For a major studio, there is likely no single individual who makes the call - not even the CEO, who is ultimately responsible to a board of directors. For the most part, a studio is going to look at market conditions and other competing releases to determine the best date to maximize box office revenue.
This is illustrated by recent statements by Disney's CEO on the controversial decision to release Black Widow simultaneously in theaters and on streaming due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Bob Iger and I, along with the leaders of our creative and distribution teams, determine this was the right strategy because it would enable us to reach the broadest possible audience.
So, the largest and most profitable studio in the industry makes this decision carefully after input from stakeholders who are deeply involved in the process and only after carefully weighing alternatives. Other studios very likely have similar processes in place for their releases.
While there is an accepted answer to this question, I will post an additional one here, as I can answer specific parts of the original question that have not been answered yet.
Usually the director/s, producer/s, studio/s will agree on a theatrical (cinema) release window. This will be determined by the completion date of the production. The bigger the film is, the narrower the window of the theatrical release. Big blockbusters have their dates locked when the initial production agreement is signed and any release date change will require approval from a number of parties.
Then the Theatrical Distribution teams will work on the cinema release of the title around the world. They will decide on specific release dates. For the vast majority of the titles they will have the ability to move the release date of this title in any country, within a few weeks/months.
The distribution teams are typically split into two groups, the Domestic (US & Canada) and the International distribution teams. The International team is further divided into EMEA (Europe, Middle East & Africa), Latin America & APAC (Asia Pacific).
So, for example, for the release date of a film in Peru, the local Managing Director of the distribution company who will release the film and his/her team will have a release date recommendation based on the instructions (e.g. film delivery date, contractual obligations, global release strategy, talent touring availability etc.) they received by the head office. Their recommended release date will be reviewed and approved/rejected by the LATAM regional distribution team.
For some releases the recommendation goes the other way, from top to bottom. This is usually for bigger titles, with the local teams only making counter-proposals if it is absolutely necessary.
Key factors to take into consideration:
- The US release date (aka Domestic date)
- The competitive landscape ( i.e. other films that may get released around the same time, this includes local titles)
- Major local holidays, sport events, elections etc., that may affect the availability of the target audience
- Piracy: in markets with rampant piracy, you need to release the film as close to the domestic date
- Weather: In some markets, weather dictates how people will spend their time. The first hint of summer-like weather in spring, may mean barbecues instead of cinema visits in some markets. We cannot predict the weather of course months in advance, but distributors do avoid periods where the weather can literally destroy the release of a film.
- Talent availability for PR. If your main actor/actress is willing and/or contractually obligated to support the film's marketing campaign, then he/she will go to premieres and other events around the world. Clearly this helps the film's release and requires additional planning, that takes into account the talent's availability.
- Some films will be award contenders. Depending on the potential awards, there are further restrictions in terms of when a film can be released.
- And last by definitely not least, the target release date for the other, and much more profitable, revenue streams: this was TV and video in the past and streaming in our times. Die Hard had a Christmas theme and was released in July 1989, as the studio was aiming to have an appropriate 1989 Christmas release for home entertainment (video rentals/purchases).
This is just a brief list of some of the many factors that need to be taken into consideration when the distribution teams around the world work on a theatrical release date.
In the 35mm film era, another important consideration was the cost of the reels. The set of reels required for a film to be shown in one cinema would cost $2-3k or more. In these times, a reel would first play in the bigger cinemas of a major market (US) then move a few months later in another English-speaking country (UK, AUS, SA) and then finally move to subtitling markets where they would chemically etch the subtitles on the 35mm print. For example, Die Hard opened in July 1988 in the US, in February 1989 in the UK and in December 1989 in Hungary. Today, practically all cinemas play digital copies, so this is not an issue.