Why Blockbusters Shouldn’t be Afraid of Scheduling out of Summer
With August officially winding down, the 2014 summer movie season is just about in the books. Barring an enormous opening from The November Man or As Above/So Below (unlikely), Guardians of the Galaxy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are the last fireworks of a summer plagued by low attendance, which has resulted in the lowest box office total for a summer since 2005. Overall, there is one takeaway from this season that is abundantly clear: blockbusters can indeed succeed outside of the typical timespan of May through July. By scattering big budget blockbusters more evenly throughout the calendar year, not only can box office numbers increase, but movie-going will be an overall more enjoyable experience going forward.
The cluster of similar films that populate the summer landscape causes problems for both studios and audiences. With comic book movies, large-scale action pictures, and other big budget films premiering in theaters within short weeks of each other, it leaves minimal room for sky-high box office growth because conflicts of interest occur among movie-goers. For example, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opened the summer season during the first weekend of May, followed by Godzilla two weeks later, X-Men: Days of Future Past the week after and Maleficent during the final week. On a surface level this clutter seems disadvantageous, but money was still made. However, while each of these films is a proven financial success, all failed to reach their full box office potential due to an incredibly packed schedule.
Of all films to open with over $90 million during the first weekend, every single one has gone on to gross over $230 million domestically, except for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Godzilla. Both spent the duration of their theatrical run scratching and crawling their way just past the $200 million domestic mark. Neither X-Men nor Maleficent even crossed $250 million, despite large openings and solid word of mouth. Studios became blind to the amount of room that was available throughout March, April, June, July and August. Instead, they fell victim to the perception that releasing a big budget movie in May was the best strategy to implement.
This year, two films are prime examples as to why May through July isn’t the only time of the year that guarantees success for big budget movies. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy were released during April and August, respectively, thus showing that non-traditional time periods can also breed financial success. The Captain America sequel is currently the highest grossing film of the year while Guardians is already the highest grossing film of the summer and well on its way to surpassing Cap as the highest grosser of the year. Ultimately, if a blockbuster possesses a strong marketing presence, along with high quality, it will undoubtedly make money, no matter when it is released. Going even further back in time for another example, March 2010 saw the release of The Hunger Games and Alice in Wonderland, with the former amassing $152 million its opening weekend and the latter $116 million. For a month not particularly known for opening many tentpole films, those two films proved the potential of moving to a more barren release landscape.
Since the release of Jaws, summer releases have capitalized on the ideals of the season. Kids have time off school and are usually looking for something to do, while most family vacations occur from May through July. The weather is warmer, the beaches look better, and having a good time is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. It is because of these ideals that most summer blockbusters are molded in the same way. Explosions, excitement, action, and humor are the traits that are (or at least try to be) prevalent throughout all these films. A sillier comparison can be made to the relationship between ice cream and hot weather versus hot chocolate and cold weather; both peak during certain times of the year, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have success outside of their peak season.
The winter, spring, and fall are notoriously empty with big budget spectacles, yet certain films have shown that success is certainty attainable. Since 2004, only eight films have grossed over $200 million domestically during the spring (defined by Box Office Mojo as the first weekend in March through the last weekend in April). This number is more miniscule when considering the fall season (Labor Day weekend through the end of October); only one film since 2004—Gravity—has ever climbed beyond $200 million during that time, and no film even surpassed $170 million. During the winter (weekend after New Year’s through the end February), two films accumulated over $180 million domestically: The Lego Movie and The Passion of the Christ. If spring is known as a barren wasteland for tentpole releases, then the fall and winter are even more desolate.
These numbers don’t necessarily suggest failure for big budget films; instead they highlight just how few (quality) films actually take the leap of faith into uncharted territory with full support from studios. The problem is that there is so much focus during the summer months on the films generating the most money, while the fall is spent promoting lower-scale dramatic fare (with the occasional big budget movie) before taking the winter to bask in the glow of awards season, and finally taking it easy through the spring while gearing up for the cycle to start back over in the summer. This isn’t a system that is broken, it’s been working fine since the summer blockbuster became a phenomenon with the release of Jaws in 1975. However, if the (ideal) goal of business is to maximize profit while also providing customers with the best possible product, then studios should look at these empty and less competitive release dates and realize that it can result in more money for their blockbuster. As highlighted earlier, success is attainable if studios put in the same effort as they would a typical summer release.
By spreading releases out, it also allows audiences some leisure when it comes to choosing which movie to go see. There is no pressure to see every film that is currently out or guilt if there is one that just happened to be missed. The crowded schedule in May from earlier this year highlights the fact that more of the same isn’t necessarily a good thing for everyone. Another thing to note is that most summer blockbusters/big budget films share a very similar target audience. The problem is that fans who actually want to go out and see every movie can’t do it because of the rigid scheduling. An average fan is unlikely to spend upwards of $40 for movie tickets in one month, even if they would like to watch every blockbuster that is playing; a prevalent thought for the average movie-goer is that seeing one blockbuster is akin to seeing any of the other ones. However, that same individual would be more likely to spend that same amount of money if those films were more spread out through a full year.
Furthermore, an increase in flexible year-round scheduling creates diversity throughout an entire year, not just during one particular time. Instead of the year being split into categories such as summer movie season, Oscar season, and dead months like February and September, there can always be a films suited to any moviegoer’s taste no matter what time of the year it is. November and December are arguably the best time of the year for films mainly because of the wide variety of options at movie-goers’ discretion. Audiences can choose between films of varying degrees like Avatar or Up in the Air, or The Hobbit or Lincoln, not one film or nothing. A multitude of different options is more likely to result in a decision being made rather than a dismissal of all things present.
Ultimately, this trend is already starting to take shape. The upcoming Man of Steel sequel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is slated for a March 25, 2016 release date, avoiding a showdown with the third Captain America film and thus allowing both films to prosper in their own ways. Universal went ahead and secured a spot for the seventh Fast and Furious film during the first week of April 2015, with no significant competition in the vicinity. The success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy shows that there should be no doubt of the financial prosperity that can be achieved outside of the typical summer movie season. The ability for the entire year to be filled with a diverse range of films allows audiences to always know that there is always something to their liking that is available, while also giving studios the chance for their movies to make the most money possible and not worry about similar films stealing members of the same target audience. The benefits for all is undeniable, so hopefully the lessons of summer 2014 prove to further a diverse movie-going schedule.
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