Perhaps the biggest movie news this month was the announcement that Avengers: Infinity War had moved up its release date from 4 May to 27 April. Maybe it was a slow news day. Sure, Avengers: Infinity War is on track to be one of the biggest films of 2018, but the move of its release date is only one week. What’s the big deal? Well, for me, a film geek, box office geek, summer movie geek, this one-week rescheduling may signify an important trend. To explain, I first need to provide some background on the summer movie season.
Film scholars generally recognize Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws as the first modern summer blockbuster. Released on 20 June 1975, the film was an instant sensation. Although previous films had sold more tickets, Jaws took over the American movie-going audience in a big way and did so very quickly. Studios began eying the summer, starting with the lead-up to Independence Day weekend in July, as the ideal time to release big-budget spectaculars. Just two years later, Star Wars was released on 25 May 1977. Besides confirming the significance and formula for the summer blockbuster (proving Jaws was not a fluke), Star Wars made Memorial Day weekend the official start of the summer movie season. Memorial Day remains the second-biggest moviegoing weekend of the year, behind Thanksgiving. And so, for decades, Memorial Day weekend to Labour Day weekend saw studios trot out their biggest stars, biggest concepts, and biggest visual effects each year.
In the mid-’90s, however, a shift began to occur. Jan de Bont‘s Twister was released in mid-May 1996 and became an enormous surprise hit. In 1997, The Fifth Element (Luc Besson) gained a lot of traction pre-Memorial Day. In 1998, the mid-May hit was Mimi Leder‘s Deep Impact. And then, in 1999, Universal released The Mummy (Stephen Sommers) on the first weekend of May. The Mummy was a hit, and the summer movie season now began at the start of May. In 2000, future Best Picture winner Gladiator (Ridley Scott) opened the summer, followed by The Mummy Returns in 2001. If there was any doubt about the new start of summer, Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man opening on 3 May and owning the summer of 2002 put them to rest. Since 2002, a big potential blockbuster has opened the first weekend of May each year. Twelve out of those 15 years, that opening film has been based on a Marvel property: X2: X-Men United (2003), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Iron Man (2008), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), The Avengers (2012), Iron Man 3 (2013), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016), and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017).
The May to August summer movie season has been the norm ever since. It nicely splits the annual film calendar into three distinct sections. January to April (the Winter season) starts with studios dumping a lot of smaller or potentially terrible films, while audiences catch up on awards season films that were only in limited release at the end of the previous year. As this trimester continues, films tend to grow in quality and scale leading up to the summer. May to August (the Summer season) sees the big-budget, visual effects and star-laden extravaganzas, with some smaller counter-programming films. September to December (the Fall/Holiday season) starts with another traditional dumping of poorer products, then a build-up to the big-budget holiday releases and award hopefuls.
For years, the Holiday season has seen an increasing trend of counter-programming the award hopefuls with big-budget spectacles that one would expect from the summer. Half of the Harry Potter films were released a week before Thanksgiving. The Lord of the Rings trilogy owned the late-December/early-January box office from 2001-2003, and the Hobbit trilogy attempted the same feat 2012-2014. After that, the Star Wars films, former summer movie staples, took over the end of the year box office from 2015-2017.
But the blockbusters have also started spreading beyond May to August, November, and December. These days, a giant blockbuster film can seem to open any month of the year. These films are now spread out across the year, perhaps in an attempt by the studios to reduce competition between blockbusters.
Disney-owned Marvel Studios, which produce the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe films, by no means began this trend, but it certainly has shown disregard for the summer movie season in the past. In 2014, Marvel Studios released two films. The first, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, was released at the start of April. The second, Guardians of the Galaxy, was released in August, when things traditionally have wound down. The strategy worked, though. The Winter Soldier was a big hit, owning the April box office. And Guardians, coming at the end of a disappointing summer, became the first August release to win the summer movie season.
The next year, Furious 7 was released at the start of April and was one of the highest-grossing films of the year. In 2016, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice was originally scheduled to open the summer the same day as Captain America: Civil War. But Warner Bros. blinked, and they pushed Batman vs. Superman up six weeks to open in late-March, presumably against much less competition. That year also saw Deadpool, released mid-February, become one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. In 2017, Beauty and the Beast opened in mid-March and became the highest-grossing film of the year until Star Wars: The Last Jedi opened in December. That year also saw the release of It in September, and is possibly the first massive blockbuster to be released in that month ever. This year, Black Panther opened in mid-February, and is on track to be one of the highest-grossing films in recent years.
And now we come to Avengers: Infinity War, moving up its release date one week earlier than originally planned. All of the film examples I just mentioned opened a month or more before May, still firmly in the “winter” season, clearly avoiding summer altogether. But a 27 April release date indicates that Marvel Studios and Disney still want Avengers: Infinity War to be involved in the summer movie conversation. So my questions are: Has the summer movie season expanded to include the last weekend of April? and, Is Avengers: Infinity War still considered a “summer film”?
The studios behind Avengers: Infinity War clearly have their reasons. Maybe they want to avoid spoiling the film, which has been kept largely under wraps in the advertising but was scheduled to open in late-April in certain countries. Maybe they want more of a buffer before the release of Deadpool 2 (18 May) and Solo: A Star Wars Story (25 May). Or maybe like Star Wars in 1977 or The Mummy in 1999, Avengers: Infinity War represents an expansion of the summer movie season. Marvel Studios has currently scheduled Avengers 4 for 3 May 2019, and mystery films for release the first weekend of May 2020, 2021 and 2022, but those dates can easily be changed this far out.
The bigger question, however, may be whether the summer movie season is still relevant as a distinct part of the annual film calendar. With blockbusters popping up every month of the year, does it even matter if they were released between May and August? For the past several years, box office watchers have been writing about the declining attendance in the summer movie season. Perhaps this is because the films that were once concentrated in that period are now spread out throughout the year. Maybe we’re just observing May to August as a distinct period out of habit, and we’re not seeing that the film schedule has fundamentally changed. Jaws started the summer movie season in 1975. Maybe, when it comes to blockbuster movies, that season has come to an end.