As usual, the weekend before Halloween is looking a lot like a graveyard when it comes to major movie releases. Though film releases aren’t crammed into just a few busy periods, as they were a few years ago, studios still strive to avoid the dead weekends on the calendar.
In the case of the pre-Halloween period, moviegoers are preoccupied with the coming holiday, and many parties are scheduled on weekends even when the holiday falls during the week. Plus, the surfeit of horror movies earlier in the month typically play through Halloween for those still looking for chills.
Labor Day weekend is an even worse period for the movie business, with family cookouts and back-to-school prep taking over moviegoers’ attention after the early and midsummer rush of blockbusters peter out.
Though the North American box office is currently leading last year by nearly 10%, this weekend’s openings are a muted bunch: Only one new film will open in wide release. Lionsgate’s action-thriller “Hunter Killer” is eyeing a weekend of $5 million to $9 million from about 2,600 sites. Pure Flix is launching faith-based drama “Indivisible” at about 800 venues and Universal is giving a moderate release to “Johnny English Strikes Again” at about 500 locations. “Halloween” will easily win in its second frame after opening with $76.2 million.
It’s no surprise that studios are mostly avoiding the weekend, according to Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with comScore.
“People are fixated on Halloween, so the weekend before it is a tough time to open a film,” he noted. “That’s been the pattern for quite a while.”
The biggest exception came in 2011 when Paramount opened the animated pic “Puss in Boots” to an impressive $34 million. Otherwise, the pre-Halloween weekend has nine of the 59 lowest-grossing weekends over the past decade.
The box office should bounce back nicely during the Nov. 2-4 weekend, when three major releases launch with Fox’s Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” and Paramount’s Tiffany Haddish comedy “Nobody’s Fool.” Despite the competition, Fox domestic distribution president Chris Aronson said the studio opted not to go a week earlier on the pre-Halloween weekend for the “Bohemian Rhapsody” release.
“We always liked the runway that Nov. 2 gives the right picture in order to play through the November/Thanksgiving play period,” he said. Aronson said there could be less impact this year since Halloween isn’t until Wednesday, but that holiday activities are still likely to cut into the box office.
Jim Orr, Universal’s domestic distribution chief, said he believes “Halloween” was best suited to open in mid-October.
“We knew we had something special with ‘Halloween’ and wanted to make sure it had a runway leading into the holiday weekend, and clearly we made the right choice,” he said.
If the weekend before Halloween is as soft as an old pumpkin, then Labor Day is even worse. The worst three weekends in the past decade came on the Labor Day period in 2014 when total box office was $66 million, led by the sixth weekend of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” followed by 2012 and 2008. The fourth-worst came last year during the Aug. 25-27 period when the second weekend of “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” led with $10.3 million for a total weekend tally of $69.6 million.
By comparison, the current average weekend gross so far in 2018 is $158 million after 42 weekends.
In all, 60 weekends have finished below $98 million since 2008. The Labor Day corridor has 10 of the 60 lowest-grossing weekends and the two post-Thanksgiving weekends in early December have 16, since parents in particular are engrossed in Black Friday and Christmas shopping.
Sports are also a potent distraction: The Super Bowl weekend — one of the biggest party opportunities, along with Halloween — has five of the lowest box office weekends.
“It’s a little surprising that the Super Bowl period is so low, given that the game isn’t played on a Friday or Saturday,” Dergarabedian noted. “Fox did very well with launching ‘Taken’ in 2009 on that weekend.”
Curiously, four of the 60 low-grossing weekends took place in April 2008. Studios had generally avoided launching big titles in April, but Universal changed that in 2009.
“Our ‘Fast’ franchise has had great success in April, with ‘Fast and Furious’ opening to more than $70 million in 2009, and ‘Fast Five’ to more than $89 million in 2011,” Orr notes. “Not every tentpole needs a midsummer date. Every time you think there’s a rule when it comes to release dating, a movie comes along that raises the bar and expands the market.”
Dergarabedian concurred, noting that studios have expanded the dating of major films to the periods outside the traditional summer and holiday seasons, such as Warner Bros.’ success with “It” and “The Nun” during the second weekend of September.
“One person’s dead zone is someone else’s land of opportunity,” he added.