Sometime back, Hollywood twigged that summer when the kids were out of school and people who could afford it took vacations was a good time for big budget action movies. Some credit Steven Spielberg’s Jaws with being the kick-off point, but it gradually started happening earlier and by the 1970’s, summer became an established season for “tentpole” movies featuring fights, explosions and special effects, often on a large scale, that had a strong impact on studios’ revenues. That summer season was initially just the last half of June and the month of July, with smaller action films and comedies dropped off in the dog days of August. It wasn’t long though before the opening bell got pushed back to the end of May and the U.S. Memorial Day weekend, which back then was usually the end of the school year.
And there it stayed for a good bit, but pressures began to creep the opening date upwards. The first main factor was the establishment of the PG-13 rating in the U.S., back in the 1980’s, which made teens the key audience for almost any action film and some of the horror films. Teens would see movies more than once and bring their friends. Teens were willing to watch anything with explosions, so Hollywood happily traded sex-filled thrillers for spectacles with violent fighting and ever more extravagant stunts. And, most importantly, teens were willing to go see big action movies during the school year if it got them out of the house. The second factor was international. World film outside of Hollywood developed and grew, with little interest in U.S. calendar issues. Foreign made films, some not even in English, jumped from playing only in a few U.S. urban centers to film festivals and then to U.S. multiplexes and DVD. In return, Hollywood studios became increasingly reliant on foreign funding for the big budget action pictures and global revenues became bigger and bigger and more important. Action pictures translated really well across languages and the barriers to distribution in many countries dropped. Release dates for non-U.S. markets became staggered or needed to be coordinated with the U.S. premiere.
So the opening launch of big “summer” movies moved up rapidly through May. And then April. In 2012, The Hunger Games came out on March 23 in the U.S. And this year, the fifth Die Hard movie: A Good Day to Die Hard, comes out on February 14th. That would be Die Hard — the franchise that has earned over a billion and whose last movie installment came out in June. Maybe they just had financing problems, or fear that going back to the original “R” rating for the films means a drop in teen audience rollout, but it seems something of an omen. January and February have long been the dumping grounds months in which studios put out low budget action pictures they didn’t expect to do that well amid the expanded viewing of Oscar nominated films and random comedies. But hits from some of those low budgets like Underworld over the last decade have now made those months more attractive, and every successful launch in March or April has shown it doesn’t have to be a special time of year to release big pictures. Additionally, the end of the year holiday season — an alternate time for big pictures — has gotten more important for action pictures, as well as animated films, and has been extended. The holiday big picture season now starts in early October in the U.S., instead of at Thanksgiving.
Given the deep need in Hollywood to up revenues, especially for their initial releases, to cover costs and deal with declining movie theater visiting in the U.S., it seems unlikely that September will long be spared. A year-long “summer” season is probably soon to be upon us, with a concentration remaining in July. Note that this doesn’t mean that other types of films — comedies, romances, dramas, kids pictures, thrillers, etc. — aren’t getting made. There are more films being put out now than perhaps any time since the 1930’s, including oodles and oodles of documentaries, and their international take at the box office is also rising. There are more foreign films being imported to the U.S. then there used to be too. But the tentpoles, with their increasingly elaborate CGI effects, online PR blitzes and ability to invade previously nature doc only IMAX theaters, are coming at us fast and furious. (Fast & Furious 6 will be out May 22, which again is technically not summer, northern or southern hemispheres.) Meanwhile, the ability of lower budget action films to do pretty decent CGI spectacles, like the recent Warm Bodies, is rapidly increasing. So all in all, it’s an interesting time for action pictures.