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Box Office: The history behind how studios choose when in the year to release movies

(Jae Su/Daily Bruin)

By Ryan Wu

May 31, 2019 5:16 p.m.

Hollywood’s a company town. It might be a cliche, but in this age of record-breaking box office hauls, it couldn’t ring truer. With every film around the corner a potential franchise, the box office has become a high-stakes chess game for studios; who gets a sequel, and who gets left in the dust? In his “Box Office” series, Daily Bruin contributor Ryan Wu will explore the ins and outs of recently released films that topped and flopped at the box offices.

At the time, “Venom” appeared to be another misstep for Sony’s ailing Columbia Pictures. The much-joked about movie – centered around a Spider-Man villain without Spider-Man – unveiled its first trailer with all the grace of a certain biological expulsion in a light zephyr.

All but confirming everyone’s worst fears was the release date: early October, a time typically reserved for Oscar-bait dramas and cheap horror flicks, not a midbudget superhero tentpole film.

But “Venom” proved the naysayers wrong. Originally tracking for a $55 million debut at the box office, the movie exploded with an $80 million opening weekend, the highest recorded in October. In fact, “Venom” fits with a relatively recent pattern of big blockbusters opening in times outside of summer and winter vacation, with movies like “Black Panther,” “Suicide Squad” and “Deadpool” showing the potential of “dead months” like August and February.

But why were they considered dump months in the first place? What made these traditions into traditions? The answer lies in the box office and in its history.

Until the ’70s, the dominant release strategy was to premiere a film in big cities like New York or Los Angeles in order to build up critical acclaim and word of mouth before disseminating prints to smaller cities when the buzz started trickling out to the rest of the country. A movie like “Frankenstein” might premiere in New York before showing in hundreds of other cities across the nation as more and more people talked about it.

All this changed with the 1975 release of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” a monster hit that’s widely considered the first “blockbuster” created. Based on the Peter Benchley novel of the same name, “Jaws” premiered in a then-massive 409 screens across the U.S. and became a huge hit. An innovative marketing campaign emphasizing the novel and film as complementary experiences helped propel “Jaws” to record-breaking highs and established summer as the prime season for film releases.

Social and economic factors also played a part. By the ’80s, when movies like “Jaws” and “Star Wars” were becoming popular, the bigger-is-better attitude of the Reagan era had begun to affect America’s movie theaters. Huge, auditoriumlike “multiplexes” began sprouting across the country, allowing more showings per day and more people per showing and facilitating the big openings that “Jaws” helped create.

It was off to the races, and studios had dollar signs in their eyes. A new kind of scheduling strategy was born, one that emphasized big opening weekends over slow-burn steady releases. By the 2000s, producers like Alan Horn had begun emphasizing four or five heavily advertised “tentpole” films, generally released around summer or Christmas to capitalize on vacation weeks, which produced most of the yearly revenue for the studio. They tended to be franchise films – think “Harry Potter” and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and they usually got plum positions on the calendar to help magnify their inherent popularity.

Nonblockbuster releases, meanwhile, often colonized the year’s “dump months” – back-to-school months like August or January, or awkward, vacationless months like October. Without big budget spectacles to compete against, smaller releases have traditionally thrived in these box office dead zones.

However, just as many studios have begun releasing blockbusters year-round, so too have smaller releases found success in the more traditionally busy summer months.

Assistant manager of digital marketing at Paramount Pictures Garima Verma said that the internet has helped smaller releases connect with their core audiences more quickly and efficiently than ever before.

“You look at marketing data, and they’re shifting more and more into digital, just because there’s a lot more you can do with it. You’re able to more specifically target the types of people that are going to go to your movie,” Verma said.

What this means is that smaller films – ranging from creature features like “A Quiet Place” to musical biopics like “Rocketman” – are still able to connect with audiences and make money in the shadow of the big tentpoles.

Whatever a studio’s strategy might be, there’s no signs that Hollywood is slowing down. After a quiet start to the year, “Avengers: Endgame” blew the gates open, creating record revenues for Disney and ushering in a slate of summer blockbusters such as “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” “The Lion King” and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.”

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” had its own long, winding journey from the soundstage to the theater. Originally slated for June 8, 2018, Warner Brothers pushed it to March 22 of the current year, before settling on a May 31 release date – three weeks after “Detective Pikachu” and a week before “Secret Life of Pets 2.”

Sometimes, there isn’t a perfect moment. You’ve just got to bite the bullet and hope the audience comes.


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Ryan Wu
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