Not so long ago, the fallow period in the film-release schedule used to be in the early part of the year. Late January to the end of February could be counted on as the time when studios, fresh off the expansions of their prestige/awards-season films (and a bit of wallowing in the glory of accolades that followed), dumped movies into the market that had little to no chance of standing up to the heat of any of the peak seasons (awards or the summer blockbuster quarter).
But a funny wrinkle developed a few years ago. First off, the summer season began to creep ahead. What once kicked off on Memorial Day has gradually inched earlier. A week or two soon became the beginning of May, and now you have a movie like Furious 7, opening the first weekend of April, going on to earn over a billion dollars internationally. Furious 7, for all intents and purposes, was a summer movie, meaning that the industry was now skipping the idea of spring entirely.
Truth be told, though, using this year as an example of this trend, we also saw the release of Insurgent, the latest young-adult adventure-franchise player (The Divergent Series) and the indie sleeper It Follows in mid-March. February saw the arrival of Fifty Shades of Grey, The Kingsman: The Secret Service and Focus, a curious departure of sorts that was supposed to announce the emergence of more adult fare from Will Smith. Focus failed to sharpen and hone this image, but Grey set up the latest international-bestselling book-to-box-office bonanza exactly as anticipated, and Kingsman drummed up enough global attention to merit sequel discussions after its first week, while placing its young star Taron Egerton on the fast track for a host of potential franchise gigs.
Not bad for the one-time dead zone in the annual release schedule, right?
Well, the reality seems to be that winter has been replaced by the late dog days of early fall.
August, in recent years, has had its share of prestige and cash grabbers. Back in 2011, The Help entered the picture in August and, two years later, Lee Daniels’ The Butler also claimed an August release spot and went on to attract not only decent box office receipts, but awards-season buzz as well. And, of course, Guardians of the Galaxy popped into the stratosphere when it debuted in August last year. Generally, though, it feels like the studios take a noticeable break later on in August through the beginning of September, which makes a certain amount of sense when you consider the cavalcade of tony film festivals that stumble over each other in an attempt to provide exclusive premieres of the upcoming awards-season releases.
For instance, the 72nd Venice Film Festival runs Sept. 2-12, while Telluride sneaks in with a packed weekend of screenings (Sept. 4-7). Toronto, celebrating its 40th anniversary, will dazzle audiences with 400 films during its 10-day event (Sept. 10-20, where I will be your eyes and ears for six precious days), and the festival season ends as one supposes it must in New York (Sept. 25-Oct. 11).
The real impact for regional film fans, especially those unable to jet off to these locales, is a Labor Day holiday window with little in the way of engaging film fare. Late August forced us to make due with the much-delayed No Escape (a maddeningly xenophobic action-thriller with Owen Wilson and Lake Bell), We Are Your Friends featuring Zac Efron as an electronic music DJ on the verge of breaking out (really?) and soul-crushingly pointless reboots of videogame adaptations (like Hitman: Agent 47, which I couldn’t even bring myself to watch).
That is not to say that worthier titles didn’t grace our screens — for instance, Mistress America is an instant classic Noah Baumbach film and Phoenix, from writer-director Christian Petzold, is a captivating post-Holocaust suspense thriller — but the expectation with these releases is smaller in scope. They aren’t assumed to be in position to garner enough interest to seize the box office throne, which for weeks now has rested in the capable hands of Straight Outta Compton, this year’s early August holdover.
How much longer will this fall period remain a forgotten dead zone? My guess is this might be the last time that happens. Someone in one of the corporate boardrooms this morning will probably be talking about the well-off-the-radar success of Alex Kendrick’s War Room, which snatched the top spot from Compton, and I bet they will wonder which one of their releases, next year will be the surprise hit of Labor Day weekend. (tt stern-enzi)