Summer films aren’t just for summer anymore.
“Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” may have blinked in its release date stare-down with “Captain America 3,” but by moving out of May and into March, the comicbook film signals that Hollywood is opening its eyes to the fact that moviegoing can be a 12-month-a-year proposition. Now, the superhero mash-up will be the first film starring the Dark Knight not to debut during the summer, something that would have been all but unthinkable a few years ago.
“If you have a great film, people will come no matter when it’s dated,” said Veronika Kwan Vandenberg, president of Warner Bros. international distribution. “It’s a bold move, but we’re taking it because we think it’s such a great film.”
Warner Bros.’ confidence was bolstered because of its recent success launching films such as “Gravity” and “The Lego Movie” in October and February respectively, and watching as they performed as well, if not better than pictures on their summer slate. The film also was well-received by fanboys and girls at Comic-Con last month, Kwan Vandenberg said.
Marvel, the studio behind the Captain America franchise, has also helped demonstrate the virtues of steering clear of the most competitive times of the year.
Last April, it kicked off the summer season early, fielding “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” on April 4, and was rewarded with a $713.6 million global haul. Likewise, the studio decided to unveil “Guardians of the Galaxy” during the first week of August, which historically is a time when the summer box office is at a low ebb. Instead, it bowed to $94.3 million domestically, providing a spark to a summer box office fuse that many studio executives feared had gone out.
The steep drop-offs that many tentpole films have suffered this summer, with pictures such as “The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ and “Godzilla” falling more than 60% in their sophomore weekends, shows the wisdom of avoiding crowded box office periods.
“You’re not in this veritable box office traffic jam,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “The studios are really putting their money on the 52-week-a-year model that they’re always talking about.”
Exhibitors, who make the bulk of their profits from concession sales and thus are dependent on foot traffic, have long been agitating for studios to broaden their definition of tentpole season.
“We think these movies can open any time of the year,” said Patrick Corcoran, a spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners. “We’re seeing a lot more of an expansion of the calendar.”
The Batman and Superman adventure will now bow on March 25, 2016, instead of the first weekend in May, which “Captain America” will have to itself. That March period will help the film capitalize on some spring school holidays and Easter — a strategy that reaped dividends for blockbusters such as “The Hunger Games” and “Alice in Wonderland,” both of which were unveiled that month.
Going forward, films such as “Fast & Furious 7″ and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” that in other years would have jockeyed for summer or winter holiday release dates, will now debut in April and February.
“When Hollywood sees a film can be successful on a certain release date it quickly wants to see if it will work again,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. “Now we’re seeing that April has become the unofficial start of the summer.”
As Hollywood becomes more dependent on the foreign box office, it allows for greater scheduling flexibility. It also creates new hurdles. This summer, for instance, the World Cup dominated the attention of soccer-obsessed countries in South America and Europe. In 2016, when “Batman v. Superman” is unveiled, many of those countries will spend the summer glued to the European Cup. Debuting in April certainly didn’t hurt the foreign grosses of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which doubled the overseas take of the first film in the series.
With studios now scaling back their production slates to focus on fewer, bigger films, many of them carrying pricetags between $100 million to $200 million, finding the perfect date is going to require more creativity and gutsy moves. That means that the traditional summer movie season may be a relic of the past.
“Now the movie defines the corridor,” said Kwan Vandenberg.