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How This Summer Broke Box Office Records by Breaking All the Rules

From documentaries to Marvel crossovers, this summer’s films found box office success by defying conventional wisdom

Disney and “Avengers: Infinity War” crushed multiple box office records this summer, headlining the second-most successful hot season ever. Perhaps more surprising is that the wild success spanned from blockbusters to documentaries.

It is thanks to studios that chose to break several of the unspoken rules of film distribution; rules like, “Don’t put a documentary about a political figure in the same month as two Marvel films” or “the summer movie season begins on the first weekend of May.”

We saw it from the very start of the season, when Marvel moved “Infinity War” from May 4 to April 27, effectively expanding the summer by a week with a record opening weekend of $257.6 million. Of the $678 million it made domestically, “Avengers” earned $338 million in its first week, practically forcing box office bean counters to include the final days of April to properly gauge Marvel’s impact as the summer blockbuster kings of the season.

This isn’t the first time Marvel has bent the box office calendar to its will.

“For a long time, the summer movie season was defined as Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend,” said comScore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “But in 2002, ‘Spider-Man’ had the first $100 million opening weekend, and ever since the summer has been kicked off almost always by a Marvel film on the first weekend of May.”

He added: “Now they changed the starting date again with ‘Infinity War,’ and it just speaks to the gravitational impact Marvel has on the industry with how they hold such sway over moviegoers.”

But while Marvel superheroes reigned over May with “Avengers” and “Deadpool 2,” a quieter but no less important breakout hit was unfolding at arthouse theaters nationwide. Participant Media/CNN Films’ documentary “RBG,” which released on the opening May weekend “Infinity War” left behind, became a strong blockbuster alternative and, with $13.9 million grossed, made 2018 the first year when three documentaries earned more than $10 million a piece.

Dergarabedian said that the other two films in that trifecta, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ($22.5 million) and NEON/CNN’s “Three Identical Strangers” ($11.6 million), fed, in part, off of the success of “RBG,” thanks to the momentum that the cinematic biography generated early in the season.

“Momentum is so important at the box office no matter what film we’re talking about, because when people go in droves to see a film they’re going to also see trailers for other films they might be interested in,” he said.

“The studios that distributed these documentaries made a really bold move putting these films out in such a crowded summer, but it paid off because they’re all quality movies that found an audience and in turn helped each other build word-of-mouth with adult audiences who wanted to see more docs.”

Such trends were also seen with the mid-budget films that settled in alongside the likes of “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” Focus Features, which released “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” in June, also released likely Oscar contender “BlacKkKlansman” in August to coincide with the anniversary of the Charlottesville riots and has so far grossed $40 million against a $14 million budget. It’s the latest example of a so-called prestige film finding success out of the usual late-year awards season corridor, joining the likes of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Dunkirk.”

“If you’re in the arthouse theater business, you have to recognize that you’re not competing with the ‘Star Wars’ and Marvels of the world,” said Focus Features distribution head Lisa Bunnell. “You’re there to offer alternatives to moviegoers and to boost new voices. Similarly, with our films, we trust in the quality that these great filmmakers like Spike [Lee] have made and are reaching out to an audience that doesn’t necessarily overlap with those of blockbusters.”

In between the blockbusters and arthouses, the season featured several titles from major studios that had modest openings but showed serious legs. “Hotel Transylvania 3” didn’t hit the heights of “Incredibles 2,” but it was still a big hit for Sony with a $44 million opening and a $162 million domestic run. And Warner Bros. showed yet again that diversity sells, as the female-fronted “Ocean’s 8” and all-Asian “Crazy Rich Asians” combined for $256.5 million.

IMAX Entertainment CEO Greg Foster said that while these sort of films won’t often appear at the top of the annual charts, movie theaters can’t do without them.

“The movie ecosystem can’t live on just the billion-dollar hit. We also need those films that post singles and doubles but also appeal to other interests,” he said. “Those films gave a long-lasting boost to movie theaters this summer, even though none of them had an opening weekend of over $50 million.”

A lot of ink has been spilled over how studios are finding ways to release hit blockbusters like “Black Panther” and “It” at any time of the year, and how that is forcing smaller films to fight harder for moviegoers’ attention. The recent decision by the Academy to air the Oscars three weeks earlier starting in 2020 will further press the issue.

But summer 2018 showed that while blockbusters have encroached on awards season, the opposite can be true, too. As long as a film appeals to what audiences truly want to see, it can come out at almost any time of the year.

That constant appeal, analyst Jeff Bock said, is what truly sets this $4.8 billion summer apart from last summer’s decade-low returns.

“Last year, we saw a lot of films that Hollywood thought audiences wanted to see, but wasn’t the case,” Bock said. “We had tired, old creaky franchises that had worn out their interest with most moviegoers, but this year we had hot franchises and original titles that had a built-in audience and marketed to them perfectly.”