It used to be the first summer movie weekend of the year was Memorial Day.
There was some unwritten rule — or maybe it was written, who knows? — that if you made a big, expensive blockbuster movie that summer movie audiences salivate for, you couldn’t release it until the end of May. No discussions would be taken on this point.
That meant your big sequels, your action movies, your franchises – they could only make box office dollars from the start to the end of summer. Anyone who deviated from that plan could go for a little rowboat ride with Fredo.
Someone called shenanigans on this. Maybe it was one person, maybe it was a studio, maybe it was a town crier in Cincinnati. I have no clue. But whoever it was, the movie industry owes this person a great debt of gratitude. The new tradition continued this weekend when Thor racked up $66 million, even though a decade ago, a Thor script spec would have been laughed out of every movie studio in Hollywood.
The theory was sound from the get-go. Studios saw where the industry was headed, that opening weekends were becoming increasingly important to movie marketing and that theater owners were building bigger multiplexes with more theaters that would increase the shelf life of their movies. So starting a summer season earlier in May instead of waiting til Memorial Day was a no-brainer.
–It keeps your movie in theaters longer during the most profitable time of the year. The summer, more than any other time, is when people (specifically kids) go to a theater without knowing what they’re going to see. So if your movie is on the marquee in July there is still a chance someone will say, “I guess we’ll see Thor.”
–That’s also when a movie is most valuable to theater owners, late in its run. Studios take most of the gate for the opening weekend, less of it the second weekend, and less and less until theater owners are getting the majority of it about a month later. That’s why theaters went bigger – to keep those late-in-the-run movies around longer. So if Thor is more valuable to theaters in July when it opens on May 6 instead of May 27, theater owners would be on board for an earlier summer season and push for it just as hard as studios.
–It gets people excited about summer movies earlier than usual. Movies are a business of word of mouth. If that chatter starts earlier, business does too.
The first time anyone seemed to break the “SUMMER STARTS ON MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND, NO EXCEPTIONS!!!” was 1992 when Lethal Weapon 3 opening on May 15 and banked $37.2 million. That’s like getting about $100 million now. It was a perfect movie to try it with — a classic summer action movie, a highly anticipated franchise with a star at the zenith of his popularity. Perhaps because of that, it probably was considered an anomaly, knowing that no ordinary summer movie could land that kind of opening pre-Memorial Day weekend.
So instead of duplicating the formula in 1993, Hollywood held back its biggest movie of the summer — Jurassic Park — until June. Only the Sharon Stone flop Sliver came out before Memorial Day weekend.
The true barometer came in 1994 when Warner Bros. released Maverick. Mel Gibson worked the first time — so why not try him again? Maverick was a somewhat classic summer action movie, and has held up extremely well on late-night TBS viewings because of its off-the-cuff humor and easy-going feel.
But it had to be a tough sell in ’94. “You know what would make a great summer movie? A remake of a TV show that went off the air more than 20 years ago, was never a top 5 rated show, doesn’t really have a central story, and the story it does have is pretty much centered around a plot that most people aren’t going to understand the first time they see it. Oh, and it’s a western, and it’s a comedy, even though Blazing Saddles is the only movie that’s ever really succeeded doing that. So let’s call it Blazing Saddles meets Lethal Weapon meets The Sting meets a TV show no one under 40 has ever heard of. Bam! Summer movie.”
The only thing it had going for it? Mel Gibson. And Mel Gibson somehow carried that crazy, funny, rambling movie to a $100 million, one of only 12 movies that made $100 million that year. Don’t think for a second that when The Beaver was hopping all over the release schedule over the last year, that someone didn’t finally pipe up with, “Why don’t we just put it out in early May, he started this in the first place.”
Let’s also remember that 1994 was one of the biggest summers of Hollywood blockbusters ever. It was one of the first years as a kid that I could remember something coming out every single weekend I wanted to see. I saw nine of the top 19 movies in the theaters(I’m cutting it off before rounding it out at 20 to avoid Pauly Shore), a bunch of them on the first weekend. Even now, that’s a damn good list of movies at the top that still hold up — Forrest Gump, True Lies, Speed, The Mask, Maverick and Natural Born Killers.
So if you wanted to get into the summer movie business in 1994, there wasn’t much real estate to be had. You could either try and take down a huge movie, or you could wait til the holidays rolled around. Warner Bros. decided to change the rules and go before Memorial Day, but still call it a summer movie.
After that it was game on: Crimson Tide in 1995 (May 12), Twister in 96 (May 10, biggest May opening ever), Deep Impact in 98 (May 8, new May box office record) and The Mummy in 99 (May 7, another new May opening weekend record).
Now Hollywood was on to something. Maybe it wasn’t just the holiday weekend that made Memorial Day so profitable — maybe it was the sheer anticipation of the big movies coming out. It’s a movie cabin fever of sorts. The first sunny day in late March where the temperature never gets above 53 isn’t the most opportune time to get a pick-up basketball game going at the park, but the line to get on the court is three teams deep because people might literally tear off their own skin if they can’t get out of their house.
Perhaps the same movie theory applies. Deep Impact doesn’t hold up very well today. The narrative is pretty boring, the CG is average at best and there is barely a character to root for. Clearly, Armageddon has won the whole “asteroid hitting the planet” movie battle of that summer movie season. But in 1998, when it set a May opening weekend record, Deep Impact was like an oasis. Titanic held down the top spot at the box office for the first 12 weeksof the year, and the April top weekend movies went like this: Lost in Space, City of Angels (twice) and The Big Hit. Yeeeeeeeesh. We were desperate for a decent movie we hadn’t seen five times already.
In 2000 came Gladiator to usher in not just a new era of May releases, but a new era of summer movies. There was always the perception that summer movies were mindless, but why? Did everyone with a brain pack up shop and stop going to the cineplexes come Memorial Day? With Gladiator, now you’ve got a smart movie with plenty of summer-necessary testosterone that made a crapload of money ($187 million, fourth for the year) and won best picture, the first time a summer movie did that since Forrest Gump in 1994.
In 2001, we learned another lesson. If a movie does well in that first summer weekend the first time around, roll it out again that weekend and see what happens. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you The Mummy Returns, which obliterated the former May opening weekend record (it made $68.1 million). I see a formula brewing.
There is a case to be made that May 3, 2002, was the most important and influential opening weekend in modern box office history. Comic book movies had been reserved for Batman and Superman, that’s it. In 2000, X-Men changed that — but there were people wondering whether it was a blip on the radar or whether comic book movies could be that profitable.
Maybe that first May weekend was a blip on the box office radar too. It had been about four years with big success, but Hollywood is a fickle place. In 2002, a movie could have bombed in that spot and no big summer movie ever would have opened there again until the next Mel Gibson movie came around.
All that worry over early May releases and comic book movies ended when Spider-Man opened on May 3, 2002, and whipped out its gigantic pee pee and basically whizzed on every opening weekend record imaginable. It made $114 million and changed the summer movie schedule for good. It was the cementing of the “first weekend in May” as the first weekend of the box office summer.
Marvel jumped first and made sure that X-Men 2 opened there in 2003 — and got rich in the process. It then released Van Helsing there in 2004, and while it didn’t flop ($51 million), it wasn’t a good movie and didn’t make back its budget domestically. Marvel missed the boat by not putting Fantastic Four there in 2005, and decided to make X-Men 3 a Memorial Day release in 2006.
In 2007, Spider-Man changed the game again when Spidey 3 crushed every May record($151 million, a record that still stands by $30 million). At this point, someone in the Marvel movie offices must have said, “Hey, we have a bunch of movies coming … why don’t we just open them all there???” So then came Iron Man (completely surprising $98 million), Wolverine ($85 million), Iron Man 2 ($128 million) and now Thor ($66 million). Just hit after hit after hit.
The comic book company now owns the next two opening May weekends (Avengers and Iron Man 3 in 2012 and 13, respectively) and always seems to be the first studio to announce summer release dates so that it can grab that first weekend in May.
We’ve been witnesses to it, we just may not have realized it. In the past decade or so, the first summer movie weekend of the year now belongs to Marvel comic books, brings us mind-blowing action and CGI, gives us great acting and story and gives us the “same time, next year” feeling that might be bringing us back for Iron Man 17 in 2032.