The Summer-Blockbuster Season Is Already Here

Big-budget franchise hits like Logan and Kong: Skull Island are now mainstays of a month that was usually left to broad comedies and family films.

Warner Bros.

For decades, the window for Hollywood’s big summer movies was tightly defined. The first blockbuster—a popular sequel, perhaps in the Indiana Jones, Beverly Hills Cop, or Rocky franchises—would drop at the end of May, and the big-budget hits would continue apace through to the Fourth of July. But when Spider-Man opened on the first weekend of May in 2002, it established a new beachhead for the beginning of summer-movie season. Then, Marvel’s “Cinematic Universe” and the Fast & Furious movies started making major hay in April and August, warping the season further. Now, as franchise films like Logan clean up at the box office, it’s clear that the summer now begins in March—weather be damned.

March used to be the home for broad, crowd-pleasing comedies and children’s animated films. When the month saw a hit break out in a big way, like 1999’s The Matrix, it was because of strong reviews and audience word-of-mouth. Then, it became the time for many a Disney live-action remake (family-friendly films with blockbuster budgets) like Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. The 2012 release of The Hunger Games at the end of March was an unqualified sensation, and from then on, the month was fair game. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a big summer movie by every standard, came out in March last year. This year has already seen the superhero sequel Logan and the monster-movie sequel Kong: Skull Island, while the releases of Beauty and the Beast, Power Rangers, and Ghost in the Shell are around the corner.

As the season has started earlier and earlier, it has also lasted longer; it now stretches all the way to Labor Day. (August used to be reserved for cruddy horror movies, but has since become prime superhero territory.) The massive summer-movie season is the perfect example of how reliant Hollywood has become on the big-budget franchise picture, with studios devoting ever more resources and advertising dollars to these extremely costly enterprises. Not too many years ago, many producers would have balked at spending close to $200 million (excluding advertising) on yet another King Kong movie, given the huge financial return needed to make a profit.

But now, a film’s worldwide take matters more to a studio’s bottom line than money made in the United States, and expensive epics that are heavy on action tend to play better abroad than comedies or romances. The less talking, the better things translate around the globe, or so the thinking goes. Logan, starring the internationally well-known Hugh Jackman as his most popular character Wolverine, has already cleared $400 million worldwide two weeks after its release. Kong: Skull Island, a Vietnam-era take on Hollywood’s most famous giant ape, features a cast geared to appeal in foreign markets (including the Chinese star Jing Tian and the Japanese musician Miyavi) and took $150 million worldwide in its first three days.

Kong: Skull Island is also the start of another franchise: It’s tied vaguely to 2014’s hit Godzilla and sets up a planned 2020 sequel in which both monsters will do battle. Even the big children’s animated film of the season, The Lego Batman Movie, slots into a broad universe of Lego movies, with many more editions planned. For now, the money is still pouring in, and audiences have largely responded to this new super-long summer season with enthusiasm.

But on the other side of the coin is Get Out, Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed horror film, which was made for a paltry $4.5 million (approximately 2.5 percent of Kong’s budget) and has earned $111 million in three weeks at the U.S. box office. It’s going to be the biggest hit in the history of Blumhouse, the tiny-budget production company that banks on word-of-mouth success and has scored huge profits with films like Paranormal Activity and The Purge. It’s also the second such success for the company in two months, after the runaway smash hit that was M. Night Shyamalan’s Split.

Both of those films were distributed by Universal, one of the few big studios that seems to understand there’s just as much money to be made in smaller-budgeted, well-made genre exercises. They won’t get the kind of worldwide rollout that a Logan or Kong: Skull Island receives, and maybe won’t move the stock-market needle for the giant conglomerates that own every major movie studio (Get Out has yet to debut outside of North America). But they can still stand out on the fringes of blockbuster season. Get Out has seen remarkably low box-office drops in each of its three weeks of release, losing only 25 percent of its audience a week (typically, horror movies lose more like 60 percent).

The horror genre did well last year, too: Some of the most profitable films of 2016 included titles like Don’t Breathe, The Conjuring 2, and Lights Out, well-received projects made for comparatively small budgets. As summer moves to take over the entire calendar, studios will have to hit peak blockbuster at some point. If they diversify now, they can begin to recapture the small- and mid-budget hits that used to define the spring and fall months. If those films end up being good, the audiences will follow—and if they’re also cheaply made, the money will likely roll in.