IT’S TIME TO RETIRE THE TERM “SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER”
In the era of franchises and tent poles, blockbusters now know no season
Arecent headline in Bloomberg responded to the string of box office duds, from King Arthur to The Mummy, declaring “Summer Is a Bummer in Hollywood.” The article echoes a lot of industry chatter about the season’s decline from the previous year, despite the success of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 and Wonder Woman. It’s a topic I was recently discussing on CBC radio, mulling through forecasts in The Hollywood Reporter that predict summer 2017 to end up as bad as 2014, which had such a drastic yearto-year downturn that one analyst described it as “the worst summer for blockbuster films since 1976.”
We should just retire the idea of summer blockbuster season. In the era of franchises and tent poles that know no season, the term has lost its meaning.
You already know where the idea of summer blockbuster season comes from. Every year, someone will preview the movies opening between May and Labour Day with a reminder that it all began in 1975 when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws took a chunk out of the box office. But Jaws’ success owes a debt to 1972’s The Godfather, which is where the Hollywood blockbuster as we know it began to take shape.
Before The Godfather, movies were rolled out slowly to build word of mouth, either by platform release or road show, much in the way indie movies are distributed today. But Paramount banked on the popularity of Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel. They opened the film in five theatres for its first week before doing the unprecedented and going national on over 300 screens with a heavy marketing campaign. The pre-release hype and saturation release made The Godfather the highest grossing film of its time and changed the way movies were planned and marketed. Jaws, also based on a bestselling novel, upped the ante by rolling out an unprecedented national TV campaign in the days before it was released on over 400 screens, just as kids were finishing up with the school year. The movie’s great, but the release strategy is what studios sought to emulate. With The Godfather and then Jaws, studios had figured out how to program an audience to show up. They figured out how to manufacture blockbusters instead of waiting on the audience’s enthusiasm for a movie to make it a blockbuster. In the past, audiences turning out in droves signalled a blockbuster. Now we tend to describe a certain kind of movie as blockbuster, as if the turnout is simply expected. Flops like King Arthur, Alien: Covenant, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead On Arrival (oops, Dead Men Tell No Tales) and The Mummy are just the most recent proofs that audiences (in North America at least) can no longer be programmed to show up just because you position a movie as a blockbuster by spending millions on advertising, hinting at a shared universe and dropping it in the summer schedule. The idea that summer is where blockbusters live doesn’t even hold water anymore. Franchise movies are a yearround affair. And with a few exceptions, like Wonder Woman and the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, hotly anticipated tent poles are actually steering clear of the over-crowded summer lineups, preferring to stake out their own real estate in the winter, spring or fall.
Beauty And The Beast lit the box office on fire in March. The Fast And The Furious franchise is sticking to April. The next Thor and Justice League are coming in November. And Star Wars is becoming a holiday season ritual. And then there’s Get Out, which made blockbuster money on a $4.5 million budget in February, which had previously been considered a movie dumping ground period.
The year-to-date box office is higher than it’s been in at least six years, negating any argument that stuff like Netflix is the reason the summer is in a slump.
Summer has just become the new dumping ground, specifically for those movies that desperately need the feel of a blockbuster to succeed.
But the idea that kids have so much expendable time that they’ll say, “Fuck it, I might as well go see that so-called ‘summer blockbuster,’” is no longer working. firstname.lastname@example.org | @justsayrad
It was The Godfather (above) that created the concept of the blockbuster. Now everything’s marketed that way, including franchises like Transformers (left), The Mummy, Spider-Man, Pirates Of The Caribbean and big bomb King Arthur.