As the summer movie season heads into its final month, we’ve entered what some call “offbeat August” – a lower profile release time for a film debut than, say, Memorial Day or the Fourth of July weekend.
Or is that conventional wisdom no longer true?
The movie business tends to see certain times of year as less important – and, perhaps, less indicative of quality – than others, says Mark Evan Schwartz, associate professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University.
Late August “was traditionally considered a time when the summer movies were pretty much exhausted,” says Professor Schwartz. “People were getting ready to do other things. And like January, it was considered a 'dump month.'”
The first half of August could be a different story, though. Back in 1999, “The Sixth Sense” opened then and became a big hit. Other big early-August hits include 2002's “Signs,” also from director M. Night Shyamalan, and the 2007 film “The Bourne Ultimatum.”
“I would consider [early August] more an extension of the big summer releases,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
“Kids are still off of school. You've got all the reasoning that goes behind big summer releases from Memorial Day through July.”
Marvel Studios scheduled their first August debut in 2014: “Guardians of the Galaxy,” an unusual live-action story involving a talking raccoon and mobile tree that became the third-highest-grossing film of the year.
“’Guardians of the Galaxy’ changed everything,” says Schwartz. “Traditionally ... a potential tentpole or blockbuster was an early summer release so they could play through the summer. And so I think 'Guardians of the Galaxy' proved everybody wrong in that thinking.”
He says Marvel accepted the release date because they trusted the quality of the film.
“I think that Marvel knows they have the product, knows they have the audience,” Schwartz says. “I suspect Marvel at this point with a reasonable amount of confidence can probably place a movie just about anywhere they want to on the calendar and do extremely well with it.”
Thompson agrees “Galaxy” was important.
“I think traditionally you had fewer [big blockbusters in August] than you had earlier in the summer, fewer than you had in the big Christmas releases," he says. "I think the idea now, the thinking with 'Guardians of the Galaxy,' with some of the [movies] that have come out, that that idea may be changing as well."
He points out, however, that “Galaxy” opened on Aug. 1. “Twenty-four hours earlier, it would have been a July release,” Thompson says.
Last summer saw “Straight Outta Compton,” a biopic about the formation of the N.W.A. hip-hop group, become a hit after its mid-August release. Schwartz remembers industry insiders being taken aback by the film's success.
“There was the feeling that ‘Straight Outta Compton’ was looking at a niche audience,” he says. “And what I don't think was anticipated … was that it was an incredibly good movie. It was one of the best movies of last year. And I don't think anybody anticipated the crossover appeal it would have.”
Thompson says he sees “Compton” as an example of a great movie being able to find an audience at any time.
This August will see several potential blockbusters open, including “Suicide Squad,” Warner Bros.’ newest film based in the world of DC Comics; “Pete’s Dragon,” a remake of the 1977 Disney movie; and “Ben-Hur,” a new version of the 1959 Charlton Heston film.
Thompson says early August has become more popular for potential blockbusters as the summer movie season has gotten more crowded.
“It starts out like a city,” he says of the summer. “It starts out [that] there's just downtown and it begins to spread. The first week of August has become the suburbs of the city of the big summer releases.”
Schwartz says he will be curious to see if Warner Bros.’ “Suicide Squad” can succeed at the box office in early August like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” released by rival Marvel, did.
“I think ‘Suicide Squad’ is going to do gigantic business,” he says. “[But] I think DC needs to pay very close attention to what Marvel is doing. I don't know that they have truly the catalogue to stand up to them. The DC universe seems to be on shakier ground than the Marvel.”
What about “Ben-Hur,” occupying what is decidedly a later August release date?
“The ‘Ben-Hur’ thing is interesting,” he says. “There's kids going back to school by the 19th of August. And that's also a big-budget thing, remade from a notoriously famous film back in '59, so I don't know what the motivation of putting that on Aug. 19 was.”
One advantage of an August release, Thompson says, is the lack of competition.
“You've still got a lot of the advantages of a big summer release in, say, the Aug. 1 [release date], without quite as many films coming out at the exact same time,” he says. “I think a very early August release has got a lot of rational thinking going for it … except for the fact that your allowance of money for popcorn and tickets may be lower.”