The summer blockbuster as we know it has been a staple of cinema since the ’70s, and big film releases have occurred in the summer months since the American Depression of the 1920s. It is hard to picture the summer holidays without the rush of trailers, posters and hype surrounding the Next Big Thing, whether it’s the next Marvel film, or whatever action film Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is in this time. But in recent years there seems to be a shift away from this release pattern. Films like Black Panther and Beauty and the Beast (2017) were released in February and March to massive box-office success, but is this a fluke or the start of a shift away from the summer blockbuster?
Jaws, and later Star Wars, solidified the summer popcorn flick, but big-budget films have been a mainstay of the film industry’s landscape for a long time, with classic films like Gone With the Wind promoted as a must-see summer hit. The ritual of expensive, “event” film released in summer originated during the American Depression of the 1920s, as cool, air-conditioned cinemas were a cheap refuge from the hot American sun. This tradition continued as Summer, when kids are on holiday and families look for entertainment, was the perfect time to release films for all the family. Films from Harry Potter to Mad Max: Fury Road have all been summer releases. For decades, May to August has been the domain of the must-see blockbusters.
But this is shifting. While summer used to be littered with blockbusters of all sizes and budgets, there are now fewer films at a much higher budget. This means that if a film with a massive budget fails, that is a huge loss for the studio. Therefore, it makes sense to sink as much money into the marketing and release of a film as possible in order to ensure success. However, if there are too many big films opening in a short period of time, the audience becomes fatigued, and will ultimately watch fewer films. In the summer of 2017 this is exactly what ended up happening: Pirates of the Caribbean 5, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, War for the Planet of the Apes, and even SpiderMan: Homecoming all under-performed, and suffered a large drop in their second week as they were replaced by the next big blockbuster.
Of course there are other factors to this – a lot of these films are just not very good, and many audiences are suffering from franchise fatigue – but the inability of summer blockbusters to maintain their popularity shows that the summer has become too crowded. To avoid competition, films are being pushed back into April and March and even as far as February to be given a fighting chance. Or, in the case of Avengers: Infinity Wars, stake their claim to an April release date well in advance and scare off the competition.
While most films floundered last year, this wasn’t a universal experience. Despicable Me 3 and Cars 3 both opened at number 1 at the US box office and maintained a steady position afterwards. “Kiddie films”, while often ignored from these discussions, are undeniably summer hits, and were likely seen as a safer bet for parents and families than films like Monster Trucks or Power Rangers. It is the big, franchise action films that are having difficulty during the summer, not the gentler, family friendly fair, which is perhaps better suited for the holidays.
Looking at this year’s summer blockbusters, it does seem that there is a move away from the summer months for big releases. Already we’ve seen huge films like Pacific Rim 2, Avengers: Infinity Wars, and Ready Player One have already been out for weeks and it’s only the beginning of May (at the time of writing). This gives these films the ability to have the best of both worlds – the space to have massive openings competition free, but also can maintain box office numbers by drifting into the summer period, and the audiences that that brings. It is clear that many big films are being pushed back into spring, but that doesn’t mean that this summer is a barren wasteland.
We do still have our crop of summer hits – Solo, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again – although most of them do seem to be sequels or prequels (or in Mamma Mia!’s case, both?). It appears that audiences are growing tired from this lack of originality, but who knows; maybe 2018 will revive the summer popcorn film. This is still speculation, and we won’t know how these films will perform until the summer is over. So for now it remains to be seen whether the summer blockbuster has dying, or if it’s just taking a siesta
[Jo Reid – @_jomreid]