Box Office: What 'Guardians of the Galaxy' Means for Year-Round Tentpoles (Analysis)
UPDATED: Marvel Studios and Disney circumvented the rules by going outside the traditional May-July corridor to launch "Guardians," which opened to record-breaking numbers; ditto for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."
Theater owners have long begged Hollywood studios to program their big tentpoles year-round versus creating a glut during the prime summer months — considered May through July — and year-end holidays. That especially applies to the big superhero movies, the ultimate summer popcorn fare.
They got their way big-time this year as Marvel Studios and Disney took the plunge and launched Captain America: The Winter Soldier in early April and Guardians of the Galaxy in August. Both movies scored the top openings of all time for their respective months, or $95 million and $94 million. And with Hollywood remaining ever more intent on churning out superhero installments and spinoffs, the success of Guardians and Captain America 2 is key in opening up the calendar.
Guardians in particular is an enormous victory considering it isn't a sequel and underscored the might of Disney's marketing team, which mounted the biggest campaign in history for an August title.
Both bested the launch of every 2014 summer tentpole save for Transformers: Age of Extinction ($100 million), upsetting the natural order amid an overall decline at the North American box office and reinforcing that less competition can mean far greater rewards.
"We thought it worthwhile to avoid the usual heart-of-summer crunch of tentpoles to help both movies stand out against less competition. The strength of the Marvel brand made us confident that we could 'extend' the traditional definition of summer, and that audiences would support both films in alternate April and August play periods," Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis told The Hollywood Reporter.
Disney and Universal have been the most aggressive when it comes to pushing the envelope and moving toward year-round programming. Disney's Alice in Wonderland proved March's promise when amassing $1 billion in global box-office receipts in 2010. (Lionsgate certainly studied Alice's numbers before deciding to release the first Hunger Games in March 2012.)
In an interview Sunday following Guardians' opening, National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian commended Marvel and Disney as well as other distributors who have taken a chance. He said everybody questioned Universal distribution honcho Nikki Rocco when the studio decided to release The Bourne Ultimatum in early August 2007. Ultimatum soared to a $69.3 million opening, the best showing for an August title until Guardians.
"People said she and her team were crazy. That was the beginning of the 12-month ideology," Fithian said. "And I commend Disney and Marvel for their year-round programming. It's not a big surprise to us that a very good movie can do big business at any point in the year."
Universal also scored when releasing Fast Five in late April 2013 to record-breaking numbers. (Fast & Furious also opened in April.) And Warner Bros. has made serious inroads; first with October's Gravity and then in February with The Lego Movie.
"The implication of having more spaces in the year to put big movies is encouraging on many fronts," says Hollis.
Fox domestic distribution president Chris Aronson agrees. "It is proven time and time again that if there is a picture that people will want to see, they will come to the cinemas, no matter what time of year," he said. Indeed, the studio has dated its next untitled Wolverine movie for March 3, 2017, the first time it has put an X-Men title outside the heart of summer.
Still, the biggest superhero movies are destined for May, June and July — at least for the time being. Disney and Marvel's sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron debuts in May 2015, and Avengers 3 three years later in 2018.
Warners' Superman v. Batman: Dawn of Justice is set to bow opposite Captain America 3 on May 6, 2016. The general consensus is that one will move to avoid a head-on collision. Some even think Dawn of Justice could move up a week earlier to the end of April, another sign of changing times.
"Every instance of a film with a massive debut outside of the traditionally accepted 'big' release periods will embolden studios to take more risks," Rentrak box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian said in commenting on Guardian of the Galaxy's debut. "As long as the movies define the month and not the other way around, the taboos will fade away and the notion of the 52-week-a-year business will become a reality and not a myth."