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Saturday, March 25, 2023

Summer Movies and Fall TV? Not Anymore—Big Year-Round Releases Flip the Script

Sharp Objects, the latest limited-series drama from HBO, ended in blockbuster fashion last night. After a mind-splitting investigation into the mysterious deaths of several young girls in Wind Gap, Missouri, journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) finally finds some answers, and a killer is put behind bars. Except it's not over. As the credits roll, the show's final twist is revealed, completely overhauling the tidy ending the audience just watched. The post-credits sequence looked like something right out of the Marvel playbook, except it was for a psychological thriller on HBO. Then again, HBO has been using Marvel's playbook for years.

Not literally, of course. The Sharp Objects reversal-of-fortune aside, HBO's bread and butter is still dramas and comedies, not superheroes. But the idea that capes and explosions and sci-fi rule the summer is quickly fading away. Not only have premium cable channels and streaming services decided to roll out their own powerhouse offerings during the dog days of summer, but movie studios—who used to keep their popcorn-ready releases locked and loaded between Memorial Day and Labor Day—now send them to theaters almost any time of year they like, audience expectations be damned. The idea of the Summer Movie Season and the Fall TV Season are over; welcome to the Year of All Entertainment All the Time.


This is by no means a sudden arrival; it's been accumulating over time. True Detective and Game of Thrones taking up a lot of people's spring screen time? That was a something new. Stranger Things capturing as much of the July pop culture conversation as The BFG? That was a moment, too. Remember when Alice in Wonderland broke $100 million during the first weekend of March in 2010? That was a huge shift in Hollywood's thinking—one that was followed a few years later by Deadpool winning over movie-goers' hearts in February, traditionally a dead zone for boffo box office weekends. (It made a record-shattering $132 million when it opened.)

"As certain periods of the year got really crowded, movie distributors said, 'OK, we need to look at a different time of the year,'" says Phil Contrino, head of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO). "And when they did, and the movie succeeded, the lesson learned was that people don't look at the calendar to decide whether they go to the movies or not."

But even though this has been creeping on for almost a decade, in 2018 year-round tentpoles became the modus operandi for both TV/film studios and audiences. For one, Black Panther came out in February and obliterated Deadpool's record with a $200-million-plus opening weekend, making it the biggest February opening and the fifth-largest domestic opening ever. That was then followed by Avengers: Infinity War hitting theaters on April 27 and a whole slew of premium TV offerings—from Killing Eve to Pose to Succession—airing between May and August, a period that a decade ago would've hosted an endless supply of reruns.

Much of this activity, of course, has been spurred by streaming. Even though cable networks like HBO were the first to find value in dropping a show like Game of Thrones in April, Netflix and its ilk have taken the idea and run with it, releasing shows like Narcos, Orange Is the New Black, and The Handmaid’s Tale during the days when audiences are typically expected to be out in theaters—or just outside in general. (Netflix and HBO declined to comment for this story; their programming heads remain full of secrets.) The opposite has occurred with movies, as Hollywood has become more comfortable in recent years with releasing big popcorn movies during the typically dead months like September or March. And while it may be counterintuitive, the two forms of media don't cannibalize each other. According to a study done by NATO earlier this year, people who frequent movie theaters also tend to watch more streaming content than those who don't hit the cineplex as often.

This doesn't mean that everything has changed, or that much more will. Networks will still release standard fall primetime TV slates, along with midseason replacements in January. Marvel, Warner Bros./DC, Lucasfilm, and the like will still vie to be the Kings of Summer and/or the December holiday season. But the idea of "dump months" is, according to Contrino, "completely gone." There is no longer any time during the year that's considered a cinematic dead zone—weekends filled with movies studios just want to get rid of. And now that subscription services like MoviePass, Sinemia, and AMC’s Stubs A-List are making movies part of folks’ monthly routines, chances are the trend will only continue.

It’s possible, however, that new time-stamped patterns will emerge. While the Oscars and Golden Globes will ensure the permanence of "awards season"—the final push to release prestige movies during November and December—streaming platforms wading into contention means that Netflix and Amazon Prime may start flooding the zone around then as well. And now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has added a new "popular film" category, perhaps studios will save a few of their summer blockbusters for the fall.

Looking at the month ahead, it seems like some of them already have. In a couple of weeks, Shane Black's new Predator movie hits theaters; a week after that Amazon is releasing its Oscar-Isaac-starring Oscar bait Life Itself, from This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman. October, which is typically packed with nothing but ghost stories and scream queens, will bring with it Venom, Bradley Cooper's reboot of A Star Is Born with Lady Gaga, Drew Goddard's Bad Times at the El Royale, and director Damien Chazelle's Neil Armstrong biopic, First Man. Oh, and, for the horror fans, there's a new Halloween movie, which could burn through the box office much like one particular scary clown did last year around this time. To borrow a phrase from Field of Dreams—which came out in April, it should be noted—if you make it, they will come.

"It was underestimated how much the market has the ability to expand," Contrino says. "There was this notion that, 'We got them in the summer, and then we're going to get them again in November and December during the holidays, and we should really not risk trying to get them again in September. Then look at last year, It was released in September and made $123 million. Nobody ever thought that would happen. But if people wanna see something, they’re gonna go." And from the look of things, they'll be doing that all year long.

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