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Weekend newsletter

Weekend newsletter

August: now a hot month for blockbusters

Posted 10:08am on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014

It used to be called a dump month.

August — sandwiched between the big-budget buzz of the spring/early summer blockbusters and the ramp-up to fall’s Oscar-hungry prestige pictures — was the time when studios cleaned the dreck off the shelves and dumped it in a multiplex near you.

Among the gems that stank up theaters in Augusts past: Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, Bratz: The Movie, Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 and that poster child for bad movies everywhere, Gigli. Even movies that were made to be intentionally so-bad-they’re-kinda-good — like those animals-gone-wild epics Snakes on a Plane, Piranha 3D and now the TV movie Sharknado 2 in special theatrical screenings — seem to come out this month. It’s a roster of films smelly enough to drive filmgoers from the refreshing cool of the multiplex to the sweltering streets outside.

Slate columnist David Plotz recently issued a clarion call to action to get rid of August altogether, as it’s “the vast sandy wasteland of American culture” when “movie theaters are clogged with the egregious action movies that studios wouldn’t dare release in June.”

Case in point: the comedy Let’s Be Cops, starring Damon Wayans Jr. and Jake Johnson, which opened this week and was dubbed by critic Roger Moore as “the definition of an August comedy.” In other words, it’s a loser.

But, sorry, Mr. Plotz. You need to lose one of your talking points: August is starting to clean up its act.

In recent years, an increasing number of films greeted with loud acclaim and large audiences have been released in this month of dog days. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), Tropic Thunder (2008), District 9 (2009), The Help (2011), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Blue Jasmine (2013) and The Butler (2013) all upended the notion that this month is just for cinematic rejects and refuse. Now, Guardians of the Galaxy — with its $94 million take on its opening weekend, Aug. 1-3, and a universe worth of laudatory reviews (it’s at 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) — is giving August even more credibility.

Its rousing success overshadowed another notable entry that opened the same day, the James Brown biopic Get on Up, which earned decent reviews and a more modest weekend take of $14 million that met “most expectations,” according to USA Today.

Last weekend, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, while hardly a critical favorite, brought in $65 million. That’s a lot of pizzas.

They’re joined this week by: The Expendables 3, with its greatest-hits ’80s/’90s cast (Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, Wesley Snipes), and The Giver, the film based on a bestselling young-adult novel that stars Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges and newcomer Brenton Thwaites and is directed by Phillip Noyce ( Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger).

Coming Aug. 22 is Austin director Robert Rodriguez’s latest installment in his graphic-novel-based “Sin City” series, A Dame to Kill For, starring Jessica Alba, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Ray Liotta. And it should score at the box office, if it echoes the $74 million haul of the first Sin City, in 2005.

It’s all part of the shifting consumer landscape.

“The paradigm is changing and so is the entire 12-month schedule,” says Jeff Bock of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations.

“We’re at a time when the core moviegoer doesn’t really pay attention to the traditional movie season,” says Dave Karger, chief correspondent for the movie-ticketing website Fandango. “If Captain America comes out in April, they’re going to go full-force. If Guardians of the Galaxy comes out the first week of August, that to them feels like an event, regardless of the month.”

“People have always wanted entertainment 12 months out of the year,” says Ted Mundorff, CEO and president of the Landmark Theatres chain, which operates the Magnolia and Inwood theaters in North Texas. “Every time a Blue Jasmine opens and they are a huge success, people say, ‘Maybe we should release films then.’ 

It parallels what’s going on with television, where the high, hard wall between the fall and spring debut of new shows and a summer stocked with reruns has collapsed faster than you can say The Strain.

“There’s definitely something similar going on with the TV and movie industries,” says Karger. “The old constructs of a movie season or a TV season are out the window now.”

Too many movies

In the old days, it made sense that August — like equally unloved September, and post-holiday January and February, the other dump months — would be the time where lesser films would land. Back then, there weren’t as many films in the distribution pipeline and it was natural to stack the popular or notable films either in late spring/early summer, when vacations mean lots of kids with free time, or the fall through December, in the run-up to the announcement of awards nominations. That’s the way it has been at least since Jaws (June 1975) and Star Wars (May 1977) kicked off the summer-blockbuster era nearly 40 years ago.

“It’s not that a film can’t open in August. It just doesn’t have the ability to run five or six weeks so there’s a scramble for June and July,” says Landmark’s Mundorff. “Once school begins, which used to be Labor Day, interest in the commercial titles always diminishes and the adult-oriented films start getting more attention.”

But the supply pipeline may be starting to burst. According to The New York Times, there were nearly 900 movies released in 2013 that the publications ran reviews for, 75 more than in 2012. This now means studios are looking at times of the year where there may be less competition.

“It’s possible that we’ve reached a point of saturation for these films, where it doesn’t make sense to cram your hundred-million-dollar production into June or July where it can be easily cannibalized by other hundred-million-dollar films,” wrote Jordan Smith on the website Hollywood.com in a piece called “Is Summer Movie Season Becoming a Thing of the Past?”

“Last year, big productions like After Earth, White House Down, R.I.P.D. and The Lone Ranger all struggled to recoup their budgets while competing in May, June and July. Why not spread out into months with less traffic?” he continued. “2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes premiered in August of that year, and did surprisingly well in a month not known for launching blockbuster franchises. But the surprise success of that film brings up an even bigger question: Does the summer movie season even matter anymore?”

A few shock waves rippled through Hollywood when Warner Bros. announced recently that the heavily anticipated Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice will be hitting theaters in March 2016, not in the May sweet spot as originally planned. The move was made to get the jump on the next Captain America sequel from Marvel.

“The reality now is there really isn’t a bad week to open a movie,” Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros., told Entertainment Weekly. “We’ll be the first one up [in 2016], which is very important, and we’ll have six weeks before Captain America comes in.”

Landmark’s Mundorff noted this week that business was running 17 per-cent over the same period last year. “I’m getting traction on multiple pictures at once,” he says. “It’s fun to see that not long before school begins.”

(Overall though, as CNN reported last month, box-office has been down this summer nearly 20 per-cent compared to 2013.)

Fandango’s Karger says the studios actually began to see the potential of August 15 years ago. “The really big one was The Sixth Sense,” he says of the hit M. Night Shyamalan thriller starring Bruce Willis that opened in 1999. “That might have been when the studios really sat up and took notice.”

The film has grossed close to $300 million, according to Internet Movie Database.

Yet, in another way, even The Sixth Sense fits into the August stereotype. It didn’t have a lot of big stars and was from an unknown director.

“The studios really seem to use August as the time to release maybe the slightly more risky summer movies,” says Karger. “That way, [the studio] is not using one of the prime summer weekends. If you look at the movies that were summer successes in August like [the 2009 Meryl Streep film] Julie & Julia, these were all newer ideas, not sequels. It was not something with a number on the end of it.”

Adult alternatives

While Guardians of the Galaxy, based on a Marvel comic, has been grabbing much of the glory for the new outlook on August, it’s films aimed at adults weary of superheroes and alien invasions that often have found a home in this month over the past few years.

In addition to The Help, The Butler and Julie & Julia, you can add a few of Woody Allen’s recent films to the list: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), Blue Jasmine (2013) and the current Magic in the Moonlight. Not to mention Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), the Julia Roberts vehicle Eat Pray Love (2010) and the Tommy Lee Jones/Meryl Streep rom-com Hope Springs (2012).

The dump months can also be an opportune time for smaller studios who can’t, or don’t want to, go head to head with The Avengers and Godzilla. “A lot of the adult fare is getting in there instead of the fall, and it’s been working out,” says Exhibitor Relations’ Bock.

But with August being a player now, does that spell trouble for the indie hopefuls? If the major studios end up dominating more weeks of the year, that means fewer venues for the smaller films. Even the January-February window is seeing a slight upgrade. “There’s always a Liam Neeson film in there,” says Bock. “There are certain films that do well there, and studios do know that.”

Last year, the culture site Vulture dubbed Mark Wahlberg “Mr. January” because a handful of his films have opened then and because his Boston Joe Everyman persona fits the month’s back-to-work mood.

But Landmark’s Mundorff thinks big-studio and indie can co-exist any time of year. “I don’t see one precluding the other, and Christmas time [when films up for awards are playing] proves it,” he says.

He points to the low-budget cult indie hit Napoleon Dynamite, which had a limited opening in June 2004 and then went wide that August, to show that there have long been films that have broken the rules.

“There was a time for independent films when it was said ‘Stay away from the summer,’ ” he says. “But then Napoleon ran from the beginning of summer through September, and then got rejuvenated in September once the college kids came back and there was word-of-mouth.”

As Guardians of the Galaxy helps audiences and studios to see August in a new light, just wait a few years, Bock says. “In 2016, you’re going to see a lot of big August films.”

Come some Oscar season soon, November and December just might have company.

Cary Darling, 817-390-7571 Twitter: @carydar

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