It’s time to say ‘hasta la vista’ to the summer blockbuster

The Terminator

The Internet buzz over Deadpool‘s February release signals a new era for cinema as we know it.

Back in June, film website The Dissolve published a list of the 50 greatest summer blockbusters ever. It was extremely comprehensive and quite varied, demonstrating the myriad ways the tradition of the summer blockbuster has become an indelible part of American pop culture overtime. Which is why it was ironic that by August 29th, the New York Times’ Brooks Barnes published a piece about how 2014 saw the worst summer at the American box office since 1997.

In trying to analyze why this was the case, pundits pointed to everything from global distractions like the World Cup to Hollywood’s general lack of originality and reliance on sequels and potential blockbusters that got pushed out of the summer season and into later release dates. Such films included Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, Fast & Furious 7, which was delayed following the death of star Paul Walker, and The Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending. However, given the bizarre content of the last entry, it’s quite possible that the studio’s decision to move Jupiter Ascending out of the summer season was a safe bet.

Yet the other possibility as to why the summer blockbuster season is suffering has less to do with the actual movies that are coming out and more to do with summer itself. For instance, following some leaked footage that recently made the rounds on the Internet, it was announced this week that Fox and Marvel Comics are moving along with X-Men spin-off Deadpool. The project, which is set to star Ryan Reynolds, has been gestating for years, but the green light this time around looks to be real.

Deadpool is the kind of significant property that has potential to be a major superhero movie, usually marketed to prop up one weekend of the summer… except that it’s coming out in February. Of course, this could simply be due to the poor performance of Ryan Reynolds’ last attempt at a superhero franchise, 2011’s Green Lantern (a career low he is still recovering from) and end up being another case of the studio hedging their bets where a risky undertaking is concerned, a la Jupiter Ascending.

However, it could be more than that, too.

For years, the summer blockbuster has been king of Hollywood. But now, things are starting to look a little bit different. While any seismic shifts have yet to occur, there are subtle signs that Hollywood’s reliance on this season as the most important time to release tentpoles is changing.  

In an article called “Prepare for the death of the summer blockbuster movie,”  the Telegraph’s film critic, Robbie Collin, traces the origins of the tradition back to the only logical place, the place you absolutely must start if you’re looking at the summer blockbuster, and the place where Steven Spielberg first made us afraid to go in the water.

The idea of summer as moviegoing prime time surfaced in 1975, in the shape of a rampant great white shark: cinema, like Brody, Quint and Hooper, suddenly needed a bigger boat. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was released in the U.S. shortly before the Fourth of July weekend in 409 cinemas… Ever since, Hollywood has unveiled its biggest, brightest produce in the summer months, at a rate of roughly one film per week from May to mid-August. It’s a kind of tasting menu composed entirely of sweet courses, in which each dish quickens your heart and rots your teeth.

To say that summer blockbusters rot your teeth is a harsh way of putting it, but Collin’s point holds. Jaws and Star Wars are generally considered to be the end of the “New Hollywood” era of American cinema, and the beginning of a golden age for blockbusters, which some alarmists have said basically ruined movies. But whether we’re talking quality candy or bargain bin junk, Collin’s assertion that summer blockbusters, good or bad, will rot your teeth has everything to do with how many of them Hollywood churns out within the span of a few months.  

But this over-saturation didn’t work as well on the American public this year. As The Huffington Post’s Robert Marich points out, “The 21 percent drop in ticket revenue to just over $3.8 billion translates to around $1 billion less in box office than a record summer haul last year.” He goes on, observing that, “Year-to-date (meaning as of January), domestic box office is down just 5 percent, meaning comparative box office was actually higher in the winter and Spring of 2014. But those gains were more than erased by a lousy summer—and summer is the peak season for cinema.”

“But wait a second,” you might be thinking, “does that mean things are getting worse, or are they just plateauing?” And you would be smart to ask that. Because with several months of 2014 left to go, there are no real signs that the film industry is in big trouble (at least not yet), even taking into account a lousy summer. Last year marked the highest box office total ever, up from a previous record the year before. And for awhile now, people have been predicting that 2015 will mark another all time box office high, given the films that are slated to be released.

Even this year hasn’t been as bad as many have made it out to be. Consider that a movie like Transformers: Age of Extinction is (somewhat frighteningly) the 11th highest grossing film of all time, despite an average performance domestically for a blockbuster. This is due almost solely to its stellar performance overseas, which is increasingly where things really count, and where the idea of the summer blockbuster is less ingrained in the culture.

And that’s all the more impressive when you remember that the foreign box office doesn’t yield as much money per ticket as it does in the United States. Barnes writes, “In China, for instance, as little as 25 cents of every box office dollar comes back to Hollywood; in the United States, it’s 50 percent.” And keep in mind that the overseas market was also in theory supposed to be spending all their time watching the World Cup.

So with all that said, the core notion of the blockbuster is alive and well. And that the blockbuster is thriving overseas, where technically, tickets count less, means that it’s not going away anytime soon.

However, the notion of the summer blockbuster is a different story. Collin observes that in the United Kingdom, “The most successful summer blockbuster of 2014 was released in February… The film was The Lego Movie: to date, the most popular film in the U.K. this year. Its release date aside, Warner Bros.’ film cleaves rigorously to the ideal summer movie template: it’s funny and exciting, was made with cutting-edge technology, and balances heart and snark with an acrobat’s finesse.”

He continues, “Comparing this year’s top 10 summer films to last year’s reveals a decline in profits of around four per cent. In the United States, the situation is significantly worse, with takings down 15 percent on 2013; the largest year-on-year drop for three decades. Perhaps the unseasonal success of The Lego Movie points towards a future in which seasons dedicated to particular types of film will look increasingly quaint.”

Collins isn’t the only one who’s noticed a change. A piece at the San Francisco Gate also talked about the significance of The Lego Movie and other anomalies. “Two of the top movies of the year (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “The Lego Movie“) were released in spring, usually the homely sidekick to summer’s dashing hero,” Collins noted. “And the summer’s biggest hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, wasn’t released until the dog days of August.” 

“The studios are starting to realize: Let’s take advantage of the soft spots in the calendar,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak.”

What makes The Lego Movie and The Winter Soldier uniquely interesting is that both films were commercial and critical successes. But they’re also part of a trend that demonstrates legitimate blockbusters being released in Hollywood outside of the summer months. If there was any question as to whether summer begins in May for Hollywood, the original Iron Man made things official in 2008, when it came out on May 2nd and began its journey to half a billion dollars worldwide. And in 2011, Fast Five paved the way for The Winter Soldier by making a killing in April.

Then there’s The Hunger Games franchise, which nonchalantly started by taking the Spring by storm, before settling into comfortable November release dates. Speaking of which, the next installment in the series is projected to top the list of the year’s highest-grossing films, along with the conclusion to The Hobbit trilogy. So while the summer of 2014 may have been a disappointing few months for blockbusters, don’t expect the upcoming months to be so strained.

For the moment, summer is still king. Avengers: Age of Ultron has a good chance chance at being the highest grossing film of next year, and it’s slotted for that cushy early May release. However, if there’s one film that can top it, it has to be Star Wars: Episode VII, which doesn’t arrive until December.

If anything, November and December are becoming the new summer for blockbusters. But if more and more movies keep coming out in months like February and April and putting up summer blockbuster money, all bets are off. And in the end, this isn’t a bad thing for the average moviegoer. Taking the ritual out of it, for Hollywood to expect everyone to spend their money on high-priced tickets every week for four months is a lot to ask. And if they can spread spread their tentpole releases around, knowing that it won’t affect foreign box office, and that Americans will still go see their product, too, why wouldn’t they?

Last year, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg predicted the death of the Hollywood blockbuster, presenting a bubble-like situation where major studios would fall after releasing several bad flops in a row. However, if studious are under less pressure to meet a summer deadline, this future could potentially be avoided for a time. That’s not to say the movies themselves will automatically get better, but the blockbuster needn’t die, especially if it can adapt to different seasons.    

Collins concludes, “In the short term, if Hollywood really is concerned, it might try letting us consume their produce not all at once, in a greasy-lipped binge, but as part of a balanced cultural diet. It worked before 1975. It might just work again now. As ever, Lego lights the way.” Except it’s not just legos. It’s Katniss Everdeen, and Captain America, and all the cool cars from the Fast and Furious franchise. Sure, they could probably thrive in summer. But now we know they can also thrive out of it.

Photo via garryknight/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.