Does a movie's release date matter anymore?

Traditionally the summer movie season and the end of the year were thought of as high-profile times for movies to be released, but two big superhero movies, 'Deadpool' and 'Batman v Superman,' are hitting the screen in February and March this year. What's behind this shift?

Joe Lederer/Twentieth Century Fox/AP
'Deadpool' stars Ryan Reynolds.

Moviegoers will get to see the adventures of several famous superheroes on the big screen in the coming months, but the release dates of the films may have some people scratching their heads.

“Deadpool,” a superhero film starring Ryan Reynolds, will hit theaters on Feb. 12, while “Batman v Superman,” a movie bringing together Ben Affleck as the Caped Crusader and Henry Cavill as Superman, will be released on March 25.

Traditionally the beginning of the year is seen as a much quieter and lower-profile time at the box office than, say, the summer blockbuster season – traditionally between May and August – or the end of the year in November and December, when both blockbusters and awards season hopefuls appear. 

For example, this past December saw the anticipated movie “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” debut as well as Oscar contenders such as “The Revenant,” “The Big Short,” “Joy,” “Concussion,” and “The Hateful Eight.” 

A pile-up like that is rare in the beginning of the year.

“It used to be that late winter, spring and early fall were considered theatrical dumping grounds,” Variety writer Brent Lang notes.

Studios may even have bet on the beginning of the year being slow in the past. Paul Dergarabedian, a media analyst at the analytics company Rentrak, explained to TheWrap just why a movie released in December like “Avatar” can become such a big hit: if the first few months of the year are quiet, a film like “Avatar” can stay on top of the box office for weeks. 

“This is why the two top-grossing films of all-time have been December releases: ‘Avatar’ and ‘Titanic,’” Mr. Dergarabedian said. (Another December movie, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” has since become the highest-grossing movie domestically without adjusting for inflation.) “Both films benefited from a marathoner’s strategy, slow and steady all the way to multi-billion-dollar global receipts, with neither film setting the world on fire with their debut weekend grosses but capitalizing on a pretty wide open playing field from mid-December and into the typically slower periods of January, February and March.”

These months aren’t quite as slow anymore, however. Superheroes are the biggest thing in Hollywood right now, yet Twentieth Century Fox (“Deadpool”) and Warner Bros. (“Batman v Superman”) are dropping two of their most anticipated movies near the beginning of the year.

We’re seeing this with other movies, too. The first two movies in the hit animated series “Kung Fu Panda” came out during the late spring and early summer, the beginning of the traditional summer blockbuster season. This year, “Kung Fu Panda 3” is coming out at the end of January.

Why would studios release their movies during these traditionally lower-profile months rather than try for a big release date in, say, May or November?

Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, says one reason is simple: there are fewer movies to go up against. 

The last few months of March in particular have seen a certain movie become a hit. Last year, Disney’s live-action “Cinderella” remake became a box office smash after opening that month. The young adult adaptations “Divergent” and “The Hunger Games” did the same, as did another Disney live-action adaptation, “Alice in Wonderland.”

“The advantage of releasing a movie in a quieter month is that it has less competition,” Mr. Levinson says in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

Another important factor in the rise of this new year-round movie schedule: competing with TV. 

Cable and streaming services are moving away from the traditional fall-to-spring TV schedule and they’re producing programs that have been called some of the best ever made. “Because of television in general and streaming television in particular... motion pictures have felt, correctly, that they need to do everything they can to compete,” Levinson says. 

One way is to have a highly anticipated movie coming to theaters almost every month of the year, as critically acclaimed TV is now arriving almost every month of the year. 

We will keep seeing this branching out by studios into other months besides the middle and end of the year for their high-profile movies, says Levinson. “I think one hundred percent we're going to,” he says. He could also see Oscar contenders being spread out over various months rather than just coming out near the end of the calendar year. 

As for “Deadpool” and “Batman v Superman” in particular, they will be facing off against one another, two superhero movies being released within about one month of each other. 

But Levinson thinks “Batman” in particular may possibly dominate March as long as the quality is there.

“If it's a good movie, it could be huge,” he says.

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