Much like a Beach Boys song from the 1960s, North American distribution has been focused far too long on the spoils of summer, jamming tentpole after tentpole into the four-month long summer season. I’m sure there’s a musical analogy for their concentration on November and December as well but I can’t come up with one right now.
But check box office results from the U.S. and Canada over the past few years and you will notice a trend emerging, one where studio distribution executives are realizing there are other months on the calendar that don’t involve barbecues or tree trimming. Success tends to breed success and Hollywood has begun to understand that, coronavirus disruptions aside, tentpole films can open in April, February, or (gasp!) September.
In fairness, it’s not always the studio distribution chief looking at his or her office whiteboard calendar – yes, they still use those – and picking an open weekend in the spring or fall. That’s only part of it. The (sometimes) trickier part of embracing the 52 week/year release schedule is convincing producers, directors, and stars that as much money can be made in March or September on a release date all to yourself than in cramming a film into a release schedule bouillabaisse in July or at Christmas.
That’s where the success of films like “Black Panther” (released in February) “It” (September) and “Joker” (October) come into play. In Hollywood vernacular, a weekend can become known as, for example, “The ‘It’ Weekend” which makes the director of the latest tentpole horror offering salivate and forget that there is even a month entitled June. Trying to explain to producers and directors that a date with very little competition in March would be as beneficial as a date where their film battles three or four other releases at Thanksgiving was one of the most difficult parts of my job when I ran distribution at Sony. Having a holster full of comp films ready to fire at suspect producers went a long way to the commitment to the entire 52 release schedule weeks that Sony had, especially when I could work in that, away from the noise of the holidays, they’d have all the large format and multiple screens, playtime, and social media eyeballs they could shake a stick at.
Certainly, films like “Black Panther”, “It” and “Joker” were huge box office successes, but how have we fared overall in the past few years? In 2019, seven of the top 20 highest grossing films of the year were released in what I call “Shoulder Season,” specifically January through April, September and October. That number has remained rather consistent over the past few years – six in 2019, eight in 2017 and seven in 2015. While that may seem like a rather low percentage it’s worth pointing out that harkening back just ten years Hollywood very seldom had box office years with more than two or three from that season in the yearly top 20.
So how is 2020 looking so far? “Bad Boys For Life”, “Sonic The Hedgehog” and “1917” (yes, I know it was technically released in December but that was a limited break) all should land in the top 20 for the year. And because it’s only mid-February, there’s more coming. Six of the films I projected to finish in the top 20 for the year in my Forbes column in December are being released in Shoulder Season, and that list didn’t include a hedgehog named Sonic (happy to admit I missed that one).
In addition, as I tend to drone on and on about (apologies), we tend to be US-centric in our focus here in North America. We remain under the misguided delusion that the success or failure of a Hollywood film revolves around how it opens here in the States. News Flash: roughly 70% of worldwide box office receipts come from the International market these days and releasing a film on the Fourth of July doesn’t have the same effect on worldwide box office as it used to when North American box office revenues accounted for 50-60% of worldwide.
Finally, if we want to focus on who or what is driving this move to Shoulder Season we’ll have to also take a close look at the Disney Effect (Say What???). As we’re all aware, Disney has had a stranglehold on the market share crown for a few years now and with its acquisition of Fox last year it doesn’t seem to be in a position to relinquish that title anytime soon.
How does that figure into the 52 week/year conversation? Think about it, if you have one studio with a large percentage of the highest grossing films of the year they will obviously take care not to cannibalize their own films. They won’t release a Pixar film three weeks after their other Pixar film, which might have been the case if that film had come from a studio other than Disney. Also, with massive tentpoles such as the Marvel Universe, the aforementioned Pixar offerings, and a still-vital Star Wars franchise, rival studios tend to steer clear when there’s an 800-pound gorilla on a specific release date, moving those studios to other stops on the release calendar.
Of course, studios still clamor to find that perfect late June or early July spot when the kids are out of school or plant a flag on Christmas week to take advantage of the holiday multiplier. But studios are learning little by little that records can be set when there’s still snow on the ground or when the leaves start to fall from the trees, and that March, April and September are anything but four letter words.
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