Studios used to not put a lot of stock into a particular release date. Films rolled out slowly, and the better ones worked their way to the number one position and often held on to it for weeks at a stretch. In 2012, it’s significant if a film holds on to the number one spot two weeks in a row. There are often 45 or so films to hold the top spot in any given year. In 1975, there were only 15 films to top the box office, and many held on to that spot for a month or more. In fact, it used to be significant if a film made it to the top of the box office by their second weekend, and it was not uncommon for a movie not to reach the top until well into its run. Big movies were in it for the long haul and hoped for steady gains week after week, instead of collecting 50 percent of their box-office pull in their opening weekend. Star Wars, for instance, made as much money in its 15th week in 1977 as it did in its second week.
But the box-office release schedule has evolved. Dates, months, and seasons have obtained more importance, and studios have made a science out of when to release a movie. After Jaws, the summer became the go-to season for releasing big budget movies and would remain so for decades. But both research and trial and error have demonstrated that big budget movies could succeed during other times of the year, as well. I recently read an academic study from the 1990s (which is what prompted this post) that focused on the release schedules in the 1990s. The study showed that studios were going about it all wrong. They were releasing too many tentpoles in a short period of time, and they were cannibalizing each other. The studios adjusted. The box-office release schedule evolved. The summer season expanded. Months that used to be dumping grounds became profitable. Big budget films were finding unusual times to exploit audiences. Gradually — and we’re still in the midst of this expansion — studios began to realize that Memorial Day through the first of August and the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas were not the only times a a studio could release a $100 million film. They could also make money in January. And March.
Here are six milestones that have helped to shape the box-office release schedule over the years.
Jaws (Summer) — Summer wasn’t always blockbuster season. To movie studios, those three months were not any different than the rest of the year. Godfather was released in March. MASH was released in February. The biggest movie of 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, was released in September. In the modern era (since 1980), only ten films released in September have gone on to make $100 million. It wasn’t until Jaws arrived in 1975 and broke opening weekend records (with a whopping $7 million!) and went on to become the first film to cross $100 million that the term blockbuster began to be used commonly. For instance, the summer of 1974 was dominated by Chinatown, a film that likely wouldn’t be released until Oscar season today. (Chinatown, by the by, was so successful that it held the top spot at the box office for six weeks before it was supplanted by Death Wish, but six weeks later, it climbed back into the number one spot and held it for four more weeks. No film in the modern era has ever had six weeks between stints at number one; it’s rare in fact for a film to return to the top spot after a one week absence).
Taken & Paul Blart: Mall Cop (January) — January was once was considered to be a dumping grounds, a month with little legitimate box-office appeal (it’s still popularly considered as much, though it isn’t as true as it once was). IN 2009, these two films became the first that weren’t awards season holdovers to be released in January and go on to make over $100 million ($145 million and $146 million, respectively). Subsequent years have thus seen the release of Green Hornet and The Book of Eli during the month, both which closed in on $100 million. January 2013 is already looking like a crowded month with Ryan Gosling and Sean Penn’s Gangster Squad, Jeremy Renner’s Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Schwarzenegger’s return as a leading man in The Last Stand, Broken City starring Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D.
300 (March) — Once a month where mostly forgettable romcoms and horror flicks were released, the $70 million opening of 300 in 2006 demonstrated that audiences would show up in huge numbers in March. It’s suddenly become a very popular month for studios to get a jump on the summer blockbuster season with Alice in Wonderland ($334 million), Hunger Games ($405 million), and Watchmen ($107 million) (They also tried to launch the John Carter franchise in March this year, but failed miserably, though its failure had nothing to do with the release date). Next March looks almost as crowded as a summer month with Matt Damon’s Elysium, Oz: The Great and Powerful, and G.I. Joe Retaliation.
Twister (Early May) — It used to be that summer blockbuster season didn’t officially kick off until Memorial Day weekend. In 1996, Twister opened on May 10th and racked up $242 million. After that, The Mummy (1999) and Gladiator pushed that date back even earlier, and then in 2002, the monster opening weekend of Spider-Man officially moved the summer movie blockbuster season back to the first weekend in May.
Fast Five (April) — Before 2011, the week before the summer blockbuster season was typically a quiet one where studios got rid of their waste before the summer season kicked off, and there certainly weren’t blockbuster caliber movies released then (two of the more recent number one films that weekend were Obsessed and the Nightmare on Elm Street remake). Fast Five changed that, moving the summer blockbuster season back yet another week by putting up over $200 million. Now the last week of April sees similarly huge budget films being released in April in 2013 (Tom Cruise’s Oblivion) and 2014 (Spielberg’s Robopocalypse).
Godfather III (Christmas Day) — Believe it or not, Christmas wasn’t always a major release date for big budget films. In fact, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, and the first major movie to attempt to capitalize on a Christmas Day release in a major way was 1990’s Godfather III (I vaguely remember being dumbstruck that a movie that big would be released on Christmas Day). It wasn’t a hugely winning strategy for Copolla’s film, and it wasn’t until 1998’s Patch Adams before a movie would fare particularly well at the box office on Christmas Day. But since 1998, it’s become one of the biggest moviegoing days of the year, a day that studios often roll out their high profile Oscar pics (Ali, As Good As It Gets), their films targeted at families (Patch Adams, The Majestic, Sherlock Holmes) and even their Christmas counter-programming films (Girl with a Dragon Tattoo).