With January almost in our rearview mirror, we’re halfway through the cinematic wasteland known as The Dump Months. It’s that time of year when Hollywood throws its weakest material into theaters with little or no fanfare so it can better spend its promotional budgets on the next wave of summer blockbusters.
Before we reach sequel oasis in March that offers Creed III, Scream VI, John Wick: Chapter 4 and Shazam! Fury of the Gods, you have to weather the drought of Plane, 80 for Brady, and Fear, among other discards from production companies hedging their bets in this bizarre post-pandemic marketplace. But, you can’t blame The Dump Months on any COVID variation. This practice has long been a staple of Hollywood business models.
So, where did this phenomenon in the cinematic calendar come from? What market forces and movie-going habits gave birth to our modern movie release schedule? It all began with three men and a big fish.
The birth of the summer blockbuster was an accident of sorts, a perfect storm at the box office that began on June 20, 1975 with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Viewing the project through nearly fifty years of movie marketing hindsight, the film had a lot in its favor. It was based on a best-selling novel. It hit theaters at the beginning of beach vacation season across the country. Kids were out of school, and with its PG rating, they were able to attend without a parent.
Jaws earned back its entire reported production budget ($ 7 million) on its opening weekend on its way to becoming the first film to earn over $ 100 million at the U.S. box office. Its worldwide gross (including various re-releases along the way) stands at over $ 475 million. It was a global phenomenon. Lines around the block at every neighborhood theater, and your only chance to see it again was to buy another ticket. In 1975, there were no streaming services, no Blu-rays, no DVDs, no VHS.
In those days, the school year ended in early to mid-June and summer extended through the Labor Day Weekend. Jaws dominated the silver screen for over three months. It single-handedly originated the summer blockbuster season, and the Memorial Day Weekend became its unofficial kick-off. Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were all Memorial Day Weekend releases in the 1970’s and 80’s. The trend continues to this day. Top Gun: Maverick set the Memorial Day Weekend record in 2022, grossing over $ 160 million over the holiday weekend.
In the 21st century, school calendars look much different. Kids are released for the summer at various points in May and return to school the first or second week of August. Consequently, the summer blockbuster season has been steadily moving backward through the month. With so many comic book films and animated franchises competing for attention and with fewer summer weekends available, the top grossing franchises began taking over the earlier weekends in May. Marvel has historically staked its claim to the first weekend in May, and this year is no exception with Guardians of the Galaxy 3 hitting the big screen on May 5th.
The Academy Awards have historically been held in March. To qualify for an Oscar, a film must be released during the previous calendar year. Even if it’s only a December “qualifying run” in Los Angeles and/or New York before going nationwide in the New Year, a film must hit theaters before the end of the year. Critics groups announce their favorite films and performances for the year beginning as early as November.
So, the strategy for awards season is simple: recency bias. Public relations reps, production companies and distributors want their awards candidates on the minds of the general public and especially awards voters as close in time to the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards, Academy Awards and annual Top Ten lists as possible. Over the past twenty years, only four films that won the Best Picture Oscar were released before September 1st of their respective release years: CODA (2022), Nomadland (2021), The Hurt Locker (2010) and Crash (2004).
So, fall means prestige pictures and arthouse hits with the occasional well-placed blockbuster as counterprogramming. The first three James Bond films starring Daniel Craig were released in Novembers (2006, 2012 and 2015). Both Avatar films were December releases, and each topped $ 2 billion in worldwide grosses. Each of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films was released in December (2001-2003), and the trilogy earned over $ 3 billion worldwide. However, these are the exceptions that prove the rule that fall is dominated by Oscar hopefuls.
So, if you’re not a summer blockbuster and you’re not a fall awards contender, you’re an “in-betweener”, a film that leaves executives wondering how to bring you to market. With streaming services and VOD (Video On Demand) available to save on distribution costs, how does an in-betweener find itself in the multiplex? How does the annual stockpile of Dump Month titles accumulate?
The answer is simple: a lack of faith in the finished product. The film may have tested poorly. It may have been a troubled production that would require expensive reshoots to shape it into being a more viable release. Sometimes that lack of faith lies inside the industry machine itself. The executive who “greenlit” the film may have since been fired or defected to another production company.
When you lose your support among the studio “brass”, the new regime that’s taken over may quietly burn off the film during The Dump Months to avoid putting promotional dollars into a project on which they never signed off. Think of it like a new head coach of a football team firing all of the existing assistant coaches and coordinators to bring in his own people, only in this context the assistant coaches are motion pictures.
Beyond the lack of faith factor, there’s also the issue of contracts. A filmmaker or a performer may have a clause in their contract guaranteeing a theatrical release or promising them a percentage of the profits. Sending it straight to VOD or selling it off to a streaming service without the theatrical release would breach that contract. Many fading action stars over the years had a film playing in theaters at the same time another was premiering on VOD. The difference may have been the type of release the star could demand given the established popularity (or the questionable popularity) of the projects.
Actress Scarlett Johansson filed suit against Disney when her 2021 film Black Widow had its theatrical window shortened during the pandemic and was moved to Disney+ to help bolster the content on the streaming service. Although the settlement was sealed, one can only assume that Johansson had a “backend deal” that guaranteed her an additional payout based on the profitability of the film, a profitability that could no longer be computed when Disney placed her film on its streaming service while it was still in theaters. Obviously, the films populating The Dump Months aren’t major Marvel releases. They are usually smaller scale action films and comedies with stars who can only demand a modest theatrical release, but a theatrical release is required nonetheless.
In fact savvy agents and lawyers have likely contributed as much to the birth of The Dump Months as any Hollywood executive. Years ago if a mediocre film had a theatrical guarantee, the studio would often “four wall” its release by renting out a handful of theaters in Los Angeles and New York. Technically it was a theatrical release, but certainly not the kind the performer or filmmaker had in mind when the dotted line was signed.
Agents began including terms in their clients’ contracts guaranteeing a release of a certain scale. No direct to VOD. No straight to streaming. No four-walling. A genuine theatrical release across the country … in, say, January or February?
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