Why the MLK Holiday Has Become a Major Box Office Weekend

2014’s “Ride Along” and 2015’s “American Sniper” proved that Martin Luther King Jr. weekend is a prime one for debuts

Historically speaking, January was considered a dumping ground for movies, but in recent years Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend has become a premiere box office launch pad for Hollywood studios. While the holiday celebrates a man who fundamentally changed the course of a nation, like anything else it’s also become highly commoditized.

“Ride Along 2” is opening this weekend following the first film’s successful debut on MLK weekend two years ago. It grossed $48.6 million during the four days, marking the biggest opening for the holiday weekend before Bradley Cooper‘s “American Sniper” took the mantle last year.

In the 1990s, no film opened to more than $15 million in that slot. When “Save the Last Dance” hit theaters on the MLK holiday in 2001, it saw a whopping $27.5 million opening weekend. Since then, 12 other movies have grossed more than that, making MLK weekend one of the biggest outside of “peak” summer and holidays months.

“It’s definitely become more of a premiere post-holiday weekend,” BoxOffice.com Senior Analyst Shawn Robbins said. “Looking back to the early 2000s, you have the occasional MLK opener that was specifically marketed towards African-Americans, like ‘Coach Carter,’ but it really started broadening because there are just so many movies coming out now. So studios are looking towards more holidays, but MLK weekend also has a cultural advantage.”

For many studios, that advantage has made this weekend a prime slot to debut movies aimed at the African-American demographic, “Ride Along” and “Ride Along 2” being just two examples. 2009’s “Notorious,” 2007’s “Stomp the Yard” and 2005’s aforementioned “Coach Carter” also debuted on the holiday weekend. Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock says that action films and movies targeting African-Americans tend to open well in January.

“Anytime there is a major trend, or a minor ripple of what looks like its becoming a trend, studios are jumping on that,” says Exhibitor Relations’ Jeff Bock. “I don’t think we’ll ever see another MLK weekend without another African-American-themed film — it’s one of the spots that work.”

Gil Robertson, President and co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association, agrees.

“As a black journalist, it’s always been a weekend that we look to when we were always assured there would be new product centered around African-American identity,” he said. “But I think it just comes down to dollars and cents really.”

Robbins says that another factor contributing to MLK Day’s rising prominence as a debut platform is that it’s the best weekend for the post-New Year’s crowd to catch up on movies they might have missed during the holidays, irrespective of their award worthiness.

“If you even give audiences something where they have hope that it might be good like ‘The Green Hornet,’ ‘Black Hawk Down’ or ‘The Book of Eli,’ they will bite,” says Bock. “They know how far away May is, and they are looking for something that’s partially entertaining.”

Speaking of awards contenders, counter-programming provides another reason why in recent years moviegoers have flocked to theaters on MLK weekend.

“On the flip side, you have ‘American Sniper’ and ‘The Revenant’ that are considered the ‘best that Hollywood has to offer,'” said Bock. “With the abundance of those films, studios realize that they need something else to be released that weekend that is for other audiences.”

Enter: “Ride Along 2.” The Ice Cube-Kevin Hart comedy offers a breezy foil to “The Revenant’s” weighty, gore-filled Western.

Given that prospective moviegoers don’t have work or school on the Monday of MLK weekend, films opening in that slot get an “extra boost” in ticket sales, which studios are taking into consideration when looking at their release schedules.

And both Robbins and Bock agree that studios will see MLK weekend as even more of a prime release weekend in the coming years.

“It may not be a specific trend right now, but I guarantee it will be because its a success, and we will see this trend become a mainstay,” added Bock.