Late winter and spring are no longer the time of year where bad movies go to die.
Over the next four months, studios will unveil highly anticipated sequels such as “Muppets Most Wanted,” “Rio 2” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” as well as “Transcendence” and “Noah,” two hugely expensive, special effects driven spectacles.
That’s to say nothing of “Divergent,” the big screen adaptation of a best-selling young adult novel that some analysts predict could rival “The Hunger Games,” or “The Lego Movie,” a toy-line-tie-in adventure that aims to be a “Transformers” for tykes.
Any one of these films would fit comfortably into the most competitive times of year at the box office such as the summer and winter holidays, but they’re steering clear of the pile-up that inevitably occurs during those seasons.
“We live in an on-demand culture,” Ben Carlson, president and co-creator of the social media analytics firm Fizziology, said. “Much like how television has become a year-long medium, where audiences are not just tuning in during the fall to see new shows, moviegoers are coming to expect new content regardless of the time of year.”
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It may be a concession to shifting consumption habits, but it’s also an acknowledgement that there are only so many weekends from Memorial Day through Labor Day and between Thanksgiving and New Years. That means Hollywood must do a better job of spreading out its bounty, rather than clustering it around a few spots on the calendar.
“There aren’t a lot of dumping grounds anymore,” Greg Foster, IMAX Entertainment CEO and senior executive vice president, said. “There’s a sense that seasonality is going away.”
This phenomenon is partly an accident of scheduling. Reshoots or release date jockeying transplanted two Christmas movies, “The Monuments Men” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” out of the yuletide block and into February and January, respectively.
Yet, it’s also a very conscious decision on the part of studio executives to avoid the kind of brinkmanship that often leaves big-budget films fighting for popular premiere slots. That kind of tent-pole stacking has been decried by media moguls such as Viacom’s Philippe Dauman, who argued publicly that a crowded summer at the multiplexes depressed the box office results of Paramount’s “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “World War Z.”
In that kind of landscape, February or March are attractive. Credit for changing attitudes about when films can work goes to a range of high-grossing hits such as “Alice in Wonderland” ($1 billion worldwide), “The Hunger Games” ($691 million) and “Oz the Great and Powerful” ($493.3 million), all of which opened to brisk ticket sales before spring was in fill bloom.
Likewise, “Gravity” opened in October, but drew crowds that rivaled summer blockbusters on its way to racking up $675 million globally.
“Hollywood has proven many, many times that this is a year-round business and not just a holiday business,” David Hoberman, producer of this spring’s “Muppets Most Wanted,” said. “I’m not sure why there aren’t more movies opening in different times of the year.”
The lack of competition may benefit films, but a dearth of big-budget comic book pictures isn’t enough to guarantee success for a spring or winter release. “Taken,” for instance, made a bold bet when it debuted on Super Bowl weekend in January 2009. Despite facing off against the big game, the film still generated $24.7 million at the box office because audiences responded to its gripping trailer and story of a man desperately trying to find his kidnapped daughter.
“It’s a risk versus reward proposition,” said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at 20th Century Fox, which produced “Taken.” “When you have the goods you can knock it out of the park, but it doesn’t mean you should take every giant movie and release it in January.”
Certain studios are more gung ho about the off-season strategy than others. Disney, for instance, has consistently toyed with launching major spring releases, and with the exception of “John Carter‘s” belly flop in March 2012, has been rewarded for its fortitude, with both “Oz” and “Alice” ending up in the hits column.
Likewise, Universal and its distribution chief Nikki Rocco have been apostles of a twelve months a year approach to scheduling. For instance, the studio opened buddy comedy “Identity Thief” last February and saw it gross $179.3 million globally, and elongated the definition of summer by launching “Fast Five” in April 2011 and seeing it roar past $626 million worldwide.
The company is hoping to pull off a similar feat this year with the January release of its cop comedy “Ride Along.” It also credits the approach for its decision to go wide with “Lone Survivor” in January. The war drama hauled in $37.8 million last weekend — something that might not have been achievable had it debuted against an onslaught of Christmas releases.
“In the past few years, audiences have increasingly responded to a dating strategy that pushes the boundaries surrounding the typical film release calendar to include the entire year,” Rocco said. “Many of our films have had a greater opportunity to succeed at the box office because they’ve been released in alternative corridors to what we might normally have chosen.”
It’s certainly something theater owners and their main lobbying arm, The National Association of Theatre Owners, encourage. They have long agitated for studios to spread out the wealth.
“We don’t want movies targeting similar audiences to cannibalize each other by opening at the same time,” Patrick Corcoran, a NATO spokesman, said. “We want there to be a lot of choice in the marketplace at all times. If there’s isn’t, it signals to audiences that there are certain times a year when they don’t have to pay attention and they’re not motivated to leave their house.”