October 20, 2000
Hollywood's Theories on Movie Release Dates
by Dustin Putman
Since the beginning of the silver screen, Hollywood has been at the forefront of wide-release, mainstream moviemaking, filming motion pictures that they believe have commercial and/or critical chances at success. To ensure that each film is unleashed into movie theaters at just the right time, their release date is carefully planned out in advance to give it optimal chances at achievement, or, in the case of a film-gone-bad, to release it according to when it can most quietly die a quick death at the box-office. For many years, the strategies in Hollywood has caused the creation of three different movie seasons within the year, each of them with generally separate goals, both for the welfare of the film studio, as well as logistically designed to meet the moviegoers' needs and expectations at that given moment in time.
With the start of the new year and the dead of winter setting in comes the ironically titled "Spring Movie Season." While spring doesn't technically begin until the end of March, in Hollywood's eyes, it has with the opening weekend of the year, and paces through the finish line on the last week of April. In other words, the spring symbolizes the rebirth of life and the beginning of the "starting over" process, just as Hollywood starts afresh with the rise of a fresh new year. More often than not, the biggest goal of studio executives in January is to get their commercially weakest films out the gate early on so that they can disappear from the radar without many people noticing. With most of the major Christmas releases still playing strongly in January, it isrelatively easy to look over the newer output, and for good reason. Previous January releases include 1994's "The Air Up There" and "House Party 3;" 1995's "Houseguest" and "From From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog;" 1996's "Bio-Dome;" 1997's "First Strike" and "Beverly Hills Ninja;" 1998's "Phantoms;" 1999's "All I Wanna Do;" and "2000's "Supernova" and "Down to You." If you have never heard of many, or any, of the aforementioned titles, don't feel too bad; most people don't, and the film studios who released these duds are still having nightmares about how horrifically terrible they were. The success of a movie in the following three months are slightly more questionable, as the public begins to hunger for new product, but only approximately half a dozen each year become true hits (i.e. 2000's "Erin Brockovich" and "Scream 3"), due to the simple fact that the majority of movies are not very good. The reasoning in Hollywood is that the January-April timeframe is too far from the end of the year to include any unqualified Academy Award contenders, and box office grosses are at one of their lowest points in the first quarter of the year. Unfortunately, the latter belief means that a few motion pictures will come and go with the blink of an eye, and deserved larger audience support. One glaring example is Neil Jordan's "In Dreams," released in January 1999, and despite being one of the most creative films of the whole year, and including a powerful performance by Annette Bening, most critics dismissed it and general audiences failed to show up. Coincidentally, all of my friends went to see the film multiple times and grew to love it, appreciating its beautiful, sumptuous cinematography (by Darius Khandji, of "Saving Private Ryan" fame), its imaginative story, and its emotional resonance on both the subject of dreams and the loss of a child. Until American audiences show more support for films in the first four months of each year, the spring movie season will, no doubt, continue to be a dumping ground for the lesser movies that studios have little faith in.
The official "Summer Movie Season" used to begin with Memorial Day weekend, but 1996 changed that with the powerhouse success, "Twister," on May 10. Since then, the view of Hollywood on the second film season of the year has begun on the first or second weekend of the month, with subsequent early May openings including 1998's meteor-headed-for-earth tale "Deep Impact" (May 8); 1999's loose remake of "The Mummy" (May 7); and 2000's Roman epic "Gladiator" (May 5). Ever since the summer of 1975 when "Jaws" (arguably the very first summer movie blockbuster) scared audiences out of the water, the warm-weathered months of each year have meant one thing, and one thing only, to Hollywood: big bucks. With children off from school and many people traveling and taking time off of work, movie theaters are inundated with moviegoers seeking much-needed thrills and chills. With the arrival of May, and failing to lose much steam until the final weekend of August, the majority of films released are startlingly bigger, flashier, and filled to the rim with state-of-the-art special effects out to wow audiences. While not always very good from a critical standpoint (let's face it: many of the releases leave a great deal to be desired), these summer movies are solely out with the goal to razzle, dazzle, and purely entertain are known as "popcorn movies," because all that is required of you is to leave your intellectual brain at the door and do nothing but watch and munch on your popcorn. A little-known, but interesting, fact about summer movie box office is that the overall gross of the films released in the May-August period is more than the first and last four months combined. Because of this, Hollywood feels a responsibility to give people what they expect, with a sleeper smash arriving every now and then that goes head-to-head with, and makes more than, the bigger-budgeted titles. For example, two of summer '99's biggest hits were the $20-million August release, "The Sixth Sense," which not only shocked everyone by how very thoughtful and well-made it was, but also by how much it made ($275-million-plus by the end of its run, and a spot on the top ten moneymakers of all time), and the micro-budgeted $250,000 "The Blair Witch Project" (with a $140-million cume). Summer 2000 was no different, with the $15-million slasher film spoof, "Scary Movie," becoming the sleeper hit of the whole year, putting $155-million in its pocket and besting the gross of even the Mel Gibson Revolutionary War drama, "The Patriot," which was released over the ultra-profitable Fourth of July weekend. If there is only one movie season that puts greenbacks in the eyes of everyone in Hollywood, it is most certainly the summer.
With the arrival of gradually cooling temperatures and falling leaves in September comes the "Fall Movie Season," which ends with the closing of the year on December 31. The fall is the time in which Hollywood unleashes its critically lauded big guns motion pictures that the studios hope will not only win favorable support from critics and audiences alike, but that will also be major Academy Award contenders when the nominations are announced the following February. While September is a generally slow moviegoing month with few Oscar-caliber pictures, this is not always the case, as proven last year with "American Beauty," directed by Sam Mendes. Its distributor, Dreamworks, knew they had a powerful film on their hands, and with opening the film in New York and Los Angeles first, followed by a gradual wide release, word-of-mouth spread like wildfire on the highly original, brilliantly written and acted drama about two highly dysfunctional suburban families living next to each other, and their journey in finding unadulterated beauty in a seemingly bleak world. Ultimately, "American Beauty" played throughout the fall and even into the spring, collecting almost $150-million by the end of its theatrical run, as well as garnering nine Academy Award nominations and four wins, for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Kevin Spacey), and Cinematography. While the holiday months of November and December are littered with family-friendly, largely commercial ventures, there is also an equal helping of intellectual, thought-provoking work. The reason so many films with Oscar potential are released at the end of the year, rather than at any other time, is because the movies remain fresh in Academy voters' minds, and, fair or not, are more likely to be remembered than those that were released almost a whole year ago. For proof, in the last decade, only three Best Picture Academy Award winners have been released before September (February 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs," July 1994's "Forrest Gump," and May 1995's "Braveheart). Other recent winners, such as Steven Spielberg's 1993 masterwork on the Holocaust, "Schindler's List," 1996's "The English Patient," 1997's "Titanic," and 1998's "Shakepeare in Love," were released around Christmas, the exact moment in time when everyone in Hollywood is abuzz about what will and won't make the Oscar cut. The fall is a consistently fitting season to finish off each year, as ticket sales dramatically rise and everyone is reminded with the appearance of such great films why going to the movies can be such a rewarding experience.
The major reason Hollywood has created three specific moviegoing times the spring, the summer, and the fall is to give audiences and critics an idea of not only the merits of their films, but also to make the most possible amount of profit they can off each individual film. With the spring being such a slow financial time at the movies, and with the summer being the most prosperous, and the fall the most critically strong, Hollywood has settled into a yearly pattern that works for them, and in the process, so has the American moviegoing public.