The Summer Season is dead.
Well, that’s not exactly true.
Our idea of the Summer Season is dead. The Summer Season has traditionally been thought of as the peak period of box office returns for the film industry. For the past four decades, summer experiences have in part been defined by their films. Some of the most beloved films of the past 40 years have come out during the summer, and made mountains of cash through the process. Over the years, the summer season has evolved to be the home to some of the biggest budgeted films of the year, and as a result, the home of the packed theaters and long lines of eager audiences waiting to see the most anticipated films of the year.
For the longest time, the summer has been the home to the biggest films of the year- or at least that is what we’ve been told. Each year there are a countless amount of previews for the Summer Season which dive into each film that will have fans eagerly rushing to the theaters to check out. Around the middle of August, the autopsies of the Summer Season start to examine the success or failure of that summer, and use it as a measuring stick for the health entire film industry.
This is an outdated mindset, and an old way of looking at the film calendar that doesn’t really work anymore. The film industry is evolving beyond the need to fit films into a particular season, as they are beginning to branch out and make use of the entire year. The calendar is becoming homogenized, each month is beginning to look the same when examining the film release schedule, and the box office numbers reflect this change in Hollywood’s attitude towards the summer, as well as every other season.
While not officially defined, the summer season largely sits in the months of May, June and July. March and April have been the lead-ins to the summer season proper with August and September comprising the dying breaths of the season where the not-quite-good-enough summer flicks slip onto the calendar. This gives us a roughly seven month window for all the big budget and big return films to fight for box office dominance, with the middle three serving as the prime battle grounds. Rounding out the year, the winter/holiday season kicks in with another surge wrapping around to the next year before we gear up for summer again.
These seasons split the year into convenient sections which previously had high profile periods sandwiched between valleys where all the film trash tends to gather– looking at you, January. However, by using domestic gross information on Box Office Mojo, we can take a look at the highest grossing films of each year dating back to 1980, the highest opening weekends over that time, and various other statistics which can give us an idea of economic trends that are taking place in Hollywood. By looking closely at these numbers, we can pick up on one particular trend that shaping the release schedule for films across the entire year.
Before we dive into the numbers, let’s first define the boundaries for the seasons which we will be using. For the sake of this article, the peak summer season will be encompass May, June and July. The four months bookending those three, (March, April, August and September) will be off-summer, and the remaining months (January, February, October, November and December) will be called the winter months. Finally, we are going to be looking at the top 20 highest grossing films of each year, from 1980 to 2016, and including the information from 2017 as of September 13th, as well as projecting forward a little bit.
Peak summer has long been considered the primary money-making portion of the calendar for films, but that is not entirely accurate. Of the 760 films we are looking at, 47% of them come the peak summer section of the calendar. While summer is certainly expected to perform the best, this is not the majority which more fits the common idea of the summer season. What is even more interesting is how this number changes to reflect recent trends. In the past five years prior to 2017, an average of six films from October November and December have made the top 20 grossing list for that year. Using that average to project the finish to 2017, that 47% drops all the way to 39% over the past five years. Meanwhile, the winter period rises to 39% while the off summer period spikes to 22% from 16%.
While the 2017 numbers may ultimately be a little different, the main takeaway is how much the rest of the year has been catching up to the summer months, and in the case of the winter period, actually matching its overall production. No longer can the summer be labeled as the de facto peak period of the calendar, and the distribution of big box office films is becoming more spread out than ever. The biggest change has been to the off-summer portion of the calendar.
A previously ignored portion of the year, these four months are rapidly becoming the primary beneficiaries to Hollywood’s desire for further expansion. The off summer months this year alone have been strong with Beauty and the Beast, Logan, The Fate of the Furious, and most recently It all faring extremely well at the box office, with the former being the highest grossing film of the year so far. The success of March has not gone unnoticed, as others are starting to pick up on this trend as well. Just looking further into March, however, is too short sighted, as it is clear that the film studios have their sights set even higher.
More and more the studios are willing to release their films outside of a crowded summer season to get a weekend to themselves. It is far more common nowadays to see a big budget film release earlier in the year into territory they hadn’t sniffed even 10 years ago. Big budget super hero films have been creeping into March, April, August and November for a number of years, and that will not only continue, but further expand in the coming years. Black Panther will be the first summer film of the year in 2018 by coming out in February, a month that has seen its stock rise in recent years thanks to the unexpected success of films such as Deadpool, Fifty Shades of Grey, and The LEGO Movie.
All of this finally brings us to It, which smashed the September record for highest opening weekend in history with a whopping $123 million, and thus becoming the inspiration for this article. With the record September opening of It, there are now 10 months which have had at least one film surpass the $100 million mark in it’s opening weekend. Not only that, but February, April, August, September and December have all produced their first $100 million weekend since 2015, and generated seven in total in the past two and a half years. This is a very recent shift in the film calendar which should not only continue, but grow even more extreme as studios look to give their films a nice cozy weekend to themselves in order to explode with a strong opening.
The trend we have been seeing over the past few years has been that the summer season is no longer the primary home for the largest box office movers and shakers of the year. The holiday season has always been a strong home for films, and is only getting stronger with more films that normally fit snuggly in a summer weekend opting for a November or December release. Looking at the upcoming winter schedule, it is easy to spot the summer films; Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, Coco, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle could all be qualified as summer films, with several of their predecessors having been summer releases in the past. Make no mistake, these are summer blockbusters masquerading as a Holiday release. This is not a new phenomenon, with many holiday films resembling their summer counterparts, but that line becomes increasingly opaque as time goes on.
The largest movement of last few years has involved strengthening the earlier months in the year. February, March and April are becoming more and more attractive as the need for a film to become and hit and make up its production and marketing budget leaves little room for error. Even with the rise of overseas markets, the importance of having the weekend to yourself for a domestic release is still a top priority. Marketing costs are continually rising alongside production budgets that are beginning to balloon out of control. As a result, the big studios have been pushing their release dates all around the calendar, with February, March and April becoming prime real estate for some of the most anticipated films of the year.
Even August and September are more likely to become destinations for high profile films in the future with each month showing that it can host a major box office smash within the past two years. The only two months that have not produced $100 million opening weekends are October and January, and even those months are sure to break through soon. October has long been the repository for horror films looking to capitalize on enthusiasm for Halloween, while January has long been a dumpster where all the worst films of the year wind up while the holiday surge wraps up. Despite that, it will only be a matter of time until they each host big blockbuster films, as they are both wide open for a big film to dominate for nearly an entire month.
It is time for us to move on from our outdated system of having a contained summer season. As the trend has shown, many films that would have once been summer staples are finding greener pastures in spring, fall and winter. What we think of as the traditional big budget films has proven that it can fall in nearly any weekend of any given month and still find success. How can the summer season end when we are still getting summer films in November? Who is to say that the summer begins in May or even April when I can go watch a superhero film in February and March?
For better or for worse, the summer has spread to engulf nearly the entire calendar with its rays of massive budgets and action films shining on almost every month of the year. This is not a trend that is likely to go anywhere either, as there are still dates out there that are still waiting to pounced upon to have a super hero film or big budget CG extravaganza shoved into its face. So any future article or opinion that proclaims the end of a particular film trend, that whatever particular summer season is the worst ever, or even of the total death of the summer season in general must come to terms with the new world order: there is no more reason to compare or analyze the beginning of or conclusion to a summer film season, as the new summer film season never ends.