Escapism Postponed

August 25, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

It's time to begin hoping that The Quantum of Solace is a home run because, if it isn't, this could be a very dry holiday movie season. Over the years, the studios have done a good job of programming the November/December schedule such that there is a good mesh of escapism and serious fare. At any given time between Halloween and New Year's Day, it should be possible to see something profound in one auditorium, then go next door to see something completely mindless. Not so much this year, though. Two of the autumn's biggest releases - Star Trek and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - have pulled up stakes and moved to next summer. While this will obviously impact the end-of-the-year 2008 box office, one wonders whether it will have implications in years to come. Are we reaching a point in which summer (May through early August) is becoming the only time when big popcorn movies will be released?

It's understandable why July would be preferable to November for a film like the sixth Harry Potter. Irrespective of when the movie opens, it will do extraordinarily well during its opening weekend. After that, however, there's the issue of repeat business, and logic decrees that it's a lot easier to bring back kids during the summer, when there's no school, than in November and December. However, while that might seem to make sense, there's no evidence to back it up in practice.

Consider, for example, that the biggest grossing movie of all time (non-inflation adjusted) is Titanic, which opened in November, and more than 50% of that revenue resulted from repeat viewing in January, February, and March. The three Lord of the Rings movies received December openings, and all of them made more than $300 million (domestic). There are, in fact, numerous examples of films opening in the November/December time frame that achieve blockbuster status. Likewise, in part because the summer field is so crowded, there are countless examples of expected "big" movies falling on their faces (this year's most glaring example: Speed Racer).

With regard to Star Trek, one wonders whether Paramount might be expecting too much from this movie. At the height of its popularity (in the '80s), no Star Trek movie ever made as much as $150 million. In fact, the Star Trek movie to make the most money - Star Trek IV, at $109 million - was a November release. Paramount is hoping that using a new, "hip" cast and having J.J. Abrams handling things behind the scenes will give Star Trek wider appeal than its ten motion picture predecessors. But it's still Star Trek and there hasn't been much enthusiasm for things Trek in recent years. The more one looks at the weakness of the 2008 holiday movie market, the more one wonders whether Paramount would have done better leaving Star Trek where it was originally set to open.

As for Harry Potter, there's no evidence that a July opening will help it at the box office. Warner Brothers is obviously looking at how well The Dark Knight fared with a mid-July opening this year, but comparing the two in terms of demographic appeal is inadvisable. Of the five previous Harry Potter movies, three have opened in November and two during the summer. The best performing was the first movie, which grossed $315 million and opened in November. The worst performing was the third, which grossed $250 million and opened in June. The rest were mixed in between. These numbers tell us that a Harry Potter movie is probably going to make $250 million to $300 million no matter when it is released. There's no reason to believe it will do appreciably better in July than November.

Essentially, the studios are robbing Peter to pay Paul. In order to bolster a weak 2009 schedule, they are stripping the holiday 2008 roster. The argument that the weakness of the 2009 schedule is a result of the writers' strike is hollow. The strike did not last long enough to impact more than a handful of 2009 releases. The cupboard is bare because of poor planning. (Surprisingly, a dearth of superhero movies. The next "wave" is due in 2010.) Now, there's a rush to plug holes but, like a dike springing leaks, as soon as one is covered, another opens.

So what does it all mean? After an unexpectedly strong summer of 2008, it looks like November and December will be reserved primarily for the Oscar contenders. Not a bad thing if you're looking for substance, but all caviar and no candy can make for a boring diet. And, even with the holdovers, the summer of 2009 doesn't look too promising. 2010 and 2011 offer hope but, in this era of instant gratification, those dates seem intolerably far in the future.