Another Holiday Weekend has come and gone, and once again, the analysts are breaking down the box office numbers, which movie won, which movie tanked and what it all means. The Fourth of July weekend is, traditionally, one of the biggest holiday weekends of the year and 2013 was no different. This year saw two major releases come out on Wednesday, the day before the long weekend commenced.
While Despicable Me 2 certainly saw fireworks at the box office, The Lone Ranger was a dud, despite the legendarily successful track record of its producer, director and star. What’s also clear is how many moviegoers hit the multiplex on Wednesday and Thursday. Meanwhile, Friday became the sixth biggest day at the box office so far this summer.
The Fourth of July weekend is one of the year’s three biggest weekends, the others being Memorial Day and Thanksgiving. Since 1995, in fact, there have only been three instances in which at least one of the year’s top five grossing films wasn’t released on one of those three dates.
It’s a relatively recent phenomenon to schedule such monster releases on holiday weekends. And, as far as the studios are concerned, there’s a good reason for it.
“It’s a great marketing peg,” says box-office expert Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com. “You know when July Fourth is, just like you know when Thanksgiving is. Even Christmas Day, which is technically not a weekend release, is an extreme example because studios like to take advantage of that slow week between Christmas and New Year’s.”
Sometimes, a studio’s insistence on aiming for that prized release date can be a mistake. Case in point: The Lone Ranger. It might have fared better if so much of its family audience weren’t diverted by Despicable Me 2. Or, ask Boxoffice.com editor Phil Contrino (who called the Despicable Me 2 romp in a story on SSN last week) for another perfect example: “There just doesn’t need to be unnecessary competition,” he says. “A perfect example is this past Memorial Day. There was absolutely no need at all for Hangover III to go up against the latest Fast And Furious film. If the last Hangover had come out in, say, February or March, even with bad word of mouth, it would still have garnered bigger numbers just because of the lack of competition.”
As recently as 1994, there were no tentpoles released on the Fourth of July weekend, and it wasn’t until the rousing success of Apollo 13 in that slot in 1995 that the studios realized they had an untapped goldmine. Enter Independence Day in 1996 and the advent of the “Big Willie Weekend.”
Starting that year, three of the next four years—and four of the next seven—saw a Will Smith movie as that weekend’s tentpole release. After ID4 came Men In Black and Wild Wild West, followed in 2002 by Men In Black II. The star and the date were indeed briefly synonymous.
But there is a paradigm shift on the horizon, as industry watchers observe. Indeed, the tradition of releasing the industry’s most anticipated summer releases over Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends is being eclipsed by another target date. “I think the new big weekend is the first weekend of May,” Degarabedian points out. “It’s become the start of the summer movie season, and there has now become an expectation of a massive film coming out then.”
Since 2007, the first weekend of May has seen the major release featuring a Marvel superhero. These movies include Spider-Man 3, Iron Man, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Iron Man 2, Thor, The Avengers and Iron Man 3. In 2014, that weekend will see the release of the second installment of Sony’s Spider-Man reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, while the Avengers sequel has staked out that same weekend in 2015 and Marvel has an “untitled” project in that slot in 2016.
Interestingly, while Spider-Man is a Marvel character, it isn’t part of Marvel Entertainment. But since Sony had already staked out that May weekend, Marvel had no choice but launch its first major release of 2014 a month earlier. Hence, the Captain America sequel, The Winter Soldier, will enter theaters on April 4, 2014. And, in light of the recent success certain releases have been enjoying in March (300, Alice In Wonderland, The Hunger Games and Oz: The Great And Powerful, among others), the question becomes: When does the summer season really begin anymore?
“There has to be a cut-off,” Dergarabedian insists. “A movie coming out in March or April could be a part of the summer box office numbers if the movie lasts in theaters long enough, but just because Captain America 2 is opening up in April doesn’t mean it’s part of the summer season. At some point, you just have to say no. Otherwise, do you make summer 20 weeks long? How elastic can you really make it?”
Contrino agrees, and points out that this is part of a greater trend: We are approaching a true, 52-week release calendar.
“Hollywood is reevaluating the meaning of certain release dates,” Contrino says. “The simple truth of it is that almost any weekend is now in play. Those big release dates are just no longer the be-all, end-all.”
He also agrees with Dergarabedian’s theory about the newest Big Weekend of the year. “That first weekend of May is unquestionably huge,” he says. “Just look at the numbers the movies have done on that date.”
Likewise, Degarabedian concurs with Contrino’s point about the broadening of the schedule, adding, “You can look at August as a perfect example. That used to be a dead zone for movies, almost meaningless to the summer’s final numbers, but now you’re seeing interesting, admittedly smaller movies [in August] and finding an audience. Look at District 9 from a few years ago, and now [its director] Neill Blomkamp has his follow-up coming out on pretty much the same weekend, four years later.”
Once a release date has proven itself, the scramble begins among studios to secure that date for their upcoming tentpoles. “Studios are planting their flags on a date two, three, even four years in advance,” says Dergarabedian, “which shows how important they still believe it is. They’re not superstitious, but once a date manifests itself with big numbers, a studio will latch on to it, and that tells you a lot.”
It’s evident that this focus on release dates, over holiday weekends or otherwise, has changed how studios develop movies. Instead of making the film first, testing it before preview audiences and tailoring a release date around it, studios are now developing specific projects that aim at the big release dates. Indeed, countless pitches probably begin with some variation of this sentence: “This is a perfect Fourth of July release!”
At the same time, a keen sense—both by the studios and audiences—of what certain release dates mean has also evolved. A perfect example of this is February’s A Good Day To Die Hard, the first time a John McClane movie hadn’t come out in the summer. “The latest Die Hard shows how vested studios are, as well as how the audience perceives the movie,” Degarabedian says. “Early in the year like that, a studio can mine the territory for in-betweeners, or films they might not feel as confident about.”
There are those, of course, who will continue to insist that the big dates, like the Fourth of July Weekend, will always matter. Says Dergarabedian, “It’s not just about celebrating America, it’s also the perfect mid-point of the summer. It’s a date that resonates with the audiences, and leads to a chicken-or-egg conundrum. Do the audiences go to the movies because of the holiday weekend? Or do the big holiday movies come out then because that’s where the audiences are?”
Of course, the flip side to that question is: Has this conundrum happened because the studios have programmed audiences, over decades, to expect big releases at specific times,? If so, it’s a conundrum of the industry’s making.
“For a film to get noticed in this atmosphere is really hard,” Degarabedian concedes. “But it’s a studio-created monster.”