No Pressure, More Diamonds: The Case for Releasing Summer Blockbusters Even Earlier

 

It was one of those moments that inspired a few eye rubs and maybe a double take or two. Not that it wasn’t slightly expected, but the magnitude could not have been foreseen. This past Valentine’s Day weekend it seemed that summer decided to come a few months earlier when Tim Miller’s Deadpool made its premiere. Fans of the ‘Merc with the Mouth’ came out in full force, ecstatic that Miller and star of the show Ryan Reynolds had finally given them the Wade Wilson they had been waiting for. Just how cathartic was their turnout? Well, the film has broken nine different box office records to date, so there’s your answer.

Breaking records for the largest February opening weekend, the largest winter season opening weekend – no, that record wasn’t held by Star Wars: The Force Awakens – and the largest opening ever for 20th Century Fox, Deadpool raked in over $132.4 million domestically, and since opening weekend has made over $500 million worldwide, not to mention this was all accomplished with a relatively slight $58 million budget. With its impressive numbers, it was only logical that a sequel to Deadpool would be greenlit relatively quickly afterwards. An important question, however, to the sequel’s success – although admittedly, as it is with any film – is its eventual release date.

For a moment, let’s put aside the likely proposition that Deadpool’s hard-R rating is what drove 20th Century Fox to release the film in February rather than any closer to the summer months, because those teenagers fresh out of school would most be able to flock towards the PG-13 films. Seeing a popular Marvel property released before May, regardless of rating, is at least a little intriguing. Additionally, with Furious 7 being released in early April last year and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice being released in nearly a month – both of them during Easter weekend – it seems that studios are finding reasons to release their blockbusters earlier than normal. Given the current and prospective landscape, such a strategy might become necessary.

Thinking about the summer, this long-winded season mostly comprises of sequels and further entries in much-beloved franchises. Ever since the first Iron Man in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been especially dominant every passing year. So if we consider this year’s Easter weekend premiere of Batman v. Superman the beginning of blockbuster season, then 19 of the films opening from late March through August are sequels and/or franchise films. That’s up from 18 last year, 17 in 2014, 15 in 2013 and 12 in 2012, so there’s a clear upward trend to be distinguished. There were 15 such films in 2011, but to be fair, two of those films – Deathly Hallows Part 2 and Scream 4 – were closing entries in different franchises. One could argue this is an era in Hollywood unlike any other, so how did we arrive here?

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The definition of ‘blockbuster’ has become more fluid over the passage of time. Although the origins of the term are debatable, it’s commonly thought that the first usage was in reference to bombs used in the Second World War, “specifically bombs that were able to bust an entire block.” Somewhere between then and the mid-1950s, when the word was used by journalists figuratively in a number of respects, ‘blockbuster’ came to be known as a film term simply defining a film that grossed a lot of money. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws became the epitome of that particular definition – making the peculiar remarks of one Fidel Castro more ironic than one can bear – but thanks to A New Hope only two years later, the film’s grand sci-fi scale not only gave viewers a glimpse of what could be accomplished cinematically, but also paved the way for our contemporary conception of blockbusters.

Nowadays, we think of ‘blockbuster’ as a signifier of particular aesthetics rather than of any film whose total revenue is particularly high, which is funny because those aesthetics are not concretely defined. Sueprhero films, other action flicks, comedies, animated films and, in some extreme cases, horror movies all fall under the banner of pleasing aesthetics with their laughs, thrills, and chills to entertain audiences worldwide. Our current interpretation of the word allows mass application to almost any film released between April and August, even in spite of a film’s financial success not being a forgone conclusion and the fact that around three new films are released every weekend. While anything has the potential to be a blockbuster in the traditionally filmic sense, the 19 franchise films coming up certainly let us know what typically sells best.

The summer movie market is now and will continue to be a billion dollar industry, although progressively earlier release dates for summer-type franchise films are skewing the definition of the summer box office. Either way, since The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises dominated the box office and national conversation in 2012, the numbers have risen. Thanks to the two previously mentioned films, the 2012 summer accounted for about $2.36 billion of the year’s domestic gross. The 2013 summer raised about $2.49 billion, 2014 experienced a slight $20 million dip, but a resurgent 2015 carried the total all the way to nearly $3.1 billion. With 19 more films on the way this year, it’d be a disappointment if those incredible numbers weren’t exceeded.

Here’s the thing, though: the total domestic figures may have risen, but the average domestic box office for these franchise films has dropped equally significantly. The average domestic box office for the 2012 summer was about $196.3 million, 2013 dropped to $166 million and 2014 dropped even further to $145.1 million. The average for 2015 rose to $171.5 million, but that year needs to be treated as a special case. Four films from last summer – Furious 7, The Avengers 2, Minions and Jurassic World – grossed over $300 million domestically; that’s compared to one, two and two films grossing over the same total in 2014, 2013 and 2012, respectively. If it weren’t for 2015’s top two summer earners, The Avengers 2 and Jurassic World, the summer total and average would have lowered to $1.98 billion and $123.5 million, respectively.

With decreasing averages and increasing numbers of franchise films trying to get a piece of the action, summertime has exponentially become more competitive. Every studio hopes that at least one of their films will enjoy even a fraction of the success films like The Avengers or Jurassic World had, but in this ever-changing survival-of-the-fittest landscape, studios may decide that some of their hottest properties, which have previously seen summer’s bounties, are best placed in other portions of the release calendar.

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Anchorman and Horrible Bosses were both comedies that made their premieres in early July and were pretty successful – Horrible Bosses was a bigger financial hit than the former, though, and most of Anchorman’s success was cult-driven anyway. To be fair to Anchorman, 2004 was a completely different era of the summer box office, and it had the unfortunate privilege of facing Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, which was fresh into it’s second week. In spite of both films’ successes, their sequels were released much later in the year; Horrible Bosses 2 released Thanksgiving weekend and Anchorman 2 the weekend before Christmas. While Anchorman 2 performed even better than before, Horrible Bosses 2 suffered from thinking it could overtake Mockingjay – Part 1 a week after its premiere. November and December are typically strong months for the box office, but it’s nowhere near as competitive.

Not even superhero films are safe. The first Thor film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was released on the 6th of May, yet it’s sequel Dark World was released on the 8th of November. Of course, this could be partially due to the fact that Marvel would want to properly space their releases so as not to compete with each other, but there’s more to it than that. Thor grossed a little over $181 million domestically, which is pretty solid for a superhero film, but compare that to the Iron Man trilogy, all of which premiered in early May and grossed over $300 million. By 2011, in which case two of the Iron Man films had opened, Marvel had ‘proof’ that early May was a successful release date for Iron Man, and must have believed the same would be true for Thor. It wasn’t, and so Dark World was sent to early November, where it’s numbers actually improved. Did they reach Iron Man numbers? No, but nonetheless, Marvel found a place for Ragnarok to premiere in 2017.

By the way, while there’s no official plan for an Iron Man 4, we will be seeing Tony Stark once more in Captain America: Civil War, and when does that premiere again? That’s right, the 6th of May. Coincidence? Probably, but there’s at least a little humor to be found there, I think.

What was most shocking, however, was the recent release of Kung Fu Panda 3. Kung Fu Panda and its successor were enormous hits during the early summer, with the second film earning $165.2 million domestically from late May until late September, and the original gaining $215.4 million from early June to early October. Family animation films aren’t the most popular of summer offerings, but the two did well against strong competition, although Kung Fu Panda 2’s competition was arguably stronger, with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides being released the week before, and The Hangover II the same weekend followed by X-Men: First Class being released the week after.

Whether it was due to the sequel’s performance, given the circumstances, or the changing summer landscape, Kung Fu Panda 3 was given a March 18th release date for this year, but after two other changes, found itself premiering January 29th. Perhaps the change to the least competitive time of year was best for the film, as it has currently grossed 72% of the second film’s domestic gross over a four-week span. Having been in theaters for a month, however, sharper drop-offs in revenue are imminent, as films like Zootopia, 10 Cloverfield Lane and Allegiant all lead up Batman v. Superman at the end of March.

Not only are films being pushed out for fear of succumbing to the fierce competition, but there are, naturally, franchises making moves into the summer season, looking for a piece of the action. Coming up this summer and competing with X-Men: Apocalypse on May 27th is Alice Through the Looking Glass. The sequel to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Looking Glass sees a nearly three month leap forward from its predecessor’s March 5th release date. A nearly $334.2 million domestic box office, not to mention over $1 billion worldwide, likely put a little spring in Disney’s step, so to speak. Looking ahead to 2017, we see the Divergent series’ Ascendant making a mid-June premiere after the previous three had all premiered in mid-to-late March. The sequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service is looking at a similar release date, as well, after the first performed very well in February last year.

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Of course, franchise films aren’t the only ones making up a significant portion of the summer earnings. Just this past summer, Straight Out of Compton, San Andreas, Spy, Trainwreck and Inside Out all performed exceedingly well – Inside Out the only of those five to break the $300 million barrier domestically. But even with this year’s 19 films comprising around 40% of the wide releases, the money they make is crucial to the season’s success. Additionally, as we’ve previously discussed, the summer is becoming increasingly more competitive, and in order to potentially bring in more revenue, perhaps the studios should relieve some of that competition by expanding the summer release schedule into earlier months. So, where does one begin to test such a theory?

Easter is a bit of a fickle holiday in terms of dates, isn’t it? It can fall on any Sunday between March 22nd and April 25th on the Gregorian calendar, and only recently have studios begun to exploit its potential as a weekend of big revenue. Before Furious 7, the biggest Easter earners in 2013 and 2014, respectively, were G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Heaven is for Real. Furious 7 was the first to really take advantage, as it practically cruise-controlled its way to box office glory last year. Not only is Fast 8 scheduled for Easter weekend next year, but also Fast & Furious 9 and 10 are scheduled for Easter weekend in 2019 and 2021, as well. Nothing is currently scheduled for Easter weekend in 2018, but should Batman v. Superman climb to astronomical heights this year, something else of equal stature is likely to fill that void.

Even with the potential successes of Zach Snyder’s new film on the 27th of March, studio execs might still be skeptical about releasing some of their biggest films earlier in the year, because after all, Easter is a holiday weekend, and therefore might be treated as an exception. So if proof is what they need, all they need to do is look back to that profane, katana-wielding smart-mouth Deadpool. As previously mentioned, the likely logic behind releasing Deadpool in February was to avoid competition with the other PG-13 films. Films like Straight Outta Compton and Mad Max: Fury Road may have performed well last summer, but like the other R-rated films, neither of them eclipsed $200 million domestically.

Having been released Valentine’s Day weekend rather than much later, Deadpool reached that benchmark with ease, and now Deadpool 2 potentially has some good options for a summer release date, much like Kingsman from last year. If a big R-rated property could easily reach this mark, then a PG-13 one could conceivably performed even better than its more ‘mature’ counterpart – though I realize that when concerning Deadpool, ‘mature’ is a relative term. Of course, there are budgetary concerns as, for example, the average production budget for a PG-13 film released this past summer was more than twice as high than those of R-rated films. Using the actual ratio of 2.6 to 1, had Deadpool’s budget been approximately $151 million, it wouldn’t have broken even in its first week. So, perhaps there’s a second solution to all of this.

Regardless of a studio’s willingness to test the earlier months of a year, the dog-eat-dog environment they’ve created each summer has forced their hand. Dropping average domestic box office numbers will become a problem if no solution is met. 19 franchise films and sequels will meet ravenous summer crowds this year, and there are 14 already on the slate for 2017, a number that’s sure to rise considering not every month is fully booked. Like Kevin Spacey and Robert DuVall have tried to tell us in their E*Trade commercials, the film industry is all about seizing opportunity. For their own sake, maybe studios should jump first rather than cave first.

 

Author’s Note: Any numbers and/or facts not cited are based upon figures found at Box Office Mojo.

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