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With ‘Maze Runner’ Score, Fox Blows Up Movie Release Calendar

The $32 million launch of a young adult franchise is latest example of Hollywood shifting gears on timing of its movie openings

Twentieth Century Fox launched a franchise with “The Maze Runner” this weekend. It’s the first time that’s ever been done in September, when the box office is notoriously sleepy.

In doing so, the studio wrote another page in Hollywood’s new script on movie releasing, which is definitely a work in progress. Months that the studios have typically steered clear of because schools were open, weather could pose a problem or there was no history of success, are being successfully colonized. “The Maze Runner” score is the latest in a string of hits in months that have been traditional dead zones at the box office.

This year Warner Bros. set a record for the biggest February opening with “The LEGO Movie,” a few months after it broke new ground with “Gravity,” which posted the biggest October debut ever. Disney established a new August standard with “Guardians of the Galaxy” this summer. Lionsgate made March really matter when it launched “The Hunger Games” franchise in 2012. May has become the de facto start of summer, and served as the launch pad for “The Avengers,” “Iron Man 3” and this year’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

Also read: Why Hollywood Is Setting Movie Release Dates 5 Years in Advance

A lot of Hollywood’s new creativity when it comes to scheduling has to do with men in tights and their bulging budgets.

Anxious to secure prime launch dates for their most pricey and potentially lucrative properties, Disney, Sony, Fox and Warner Bros. have already penciled in more than 40 DC and Marvel superhero movies and sequels on the calendar over the next six years. Many of the biggest animated projects are already slotted, too, so it’s as much a matter of finding breathing room as breaking new ground.

The studios are not only scheduling releases further in advance than ever before, they’re placing big movie bets on dates that offer new opportunities, but come with no guarantees.

Fox knew it was taking a risk with “Maze Runner,” but saw the odds in its favor. Its adaptation of James Dashner’s best-selling young adult sci-fi novels about a young man trapped in a post-apocalyptic labyrinth had a male protagonist — played by Dylan O’Brien of MTV’s “Teen Wolf”– which made it unusual for the typically female-skewing genre.

Also read: Why the Dylan O’Brien Factor Will Boost ‘Maze Runner’ at Box Office

“This was something different and we wanted to all we could to ‘event-ize’ it,” said Chris Aronson, distribution chief at Fox. The unusual release date — targeting teens while school was in full swing — was part of that strategy.

It worked, to the tune of a $32 million opening and a new YA franchise. With a series of strong overseas openings — it’s number one in 50 countries — “Maze Runner” brought in more than $81 million over the weekend, or more than double its $34 million budget. It’s still early of course, but that gives Fox a great start to build a franchise.

The studios’ willingness to explore new release windows is good news for moviegoers frustrated by Hollywood’s feast-or-famine approach to film releases, which sees summer and the holidays crazily crowded and other periods all but dead.

Also read: ‘Fantastic Four’ Moved Into ‘Assassin’s Creed’ Release Date by Fox

“It proves that for most consumers, the date doesn’t really matter,” said BoxOffice.com vice-president and senior analyst Phil Contrino. “If the property has a following and the studio markets it properly, it’s going to work.”

Success brings imitation in Hollywood, so we’re likely to see more out-of-the-box scheduling in the future. That means moviegoers will endure fewer of those periods when “there’s just nothing out there that I want to see.”

And for that, we can thank studio executives willing to take a risk — along with Katniss Everdeen, Emmet Brickowski and now, that kid from The Glade.