- There's a reason why "Black Panther" was released in February and not the usual blockbuster-heavy summer or holiday seasons.
- It's an initiative by the movie industry to spread out its big titles throughout the year.
- National Association of Theatre Owners president and CEO John Fithian hopes this will start a trend of more blockbusters being released earlier in the year.
The incredible box-office performance by “Black Panther” is even more impressive because of the time of year it was released.
The latest Marvel movie took in an estimated $235 million over its four-day holiday opening weekend. That’s the kind of number usually found over the summer blockbuster season. But “Black Panther” did all this over Presidents’ Day weekend in February, which historically has been thought to be a dead time of year in the movie business.
But for close to a decade, movie theater execs have been trying to get studios to understand that movies can be big box-office earners any time of the year, and asking them to place some of their big budget titles outside of the summer and holiday seasons. And that lobbying has finally begun to bear fruit.
“We have struggled off and on with the distribution patterns of big movies concentrated on the summer when schools have vacation and the winter holidays, and often those big movies can cannibalize each other because they come right after the other,” John Fithian, president and CEO of National Association of Theatre Owners, told Business Insider. “Strong content can play in any month and can have more room to play in the non-traditional months."
That’s exactly what happened with “Black Panther.”
Disney used its marketing muscle, audience love for Marvel titles, and the huge anticipation by the African-American community for an adaptation of this comic book hero to find itself with a record-breaking release over the Presidents’ Day holiday weekend — $201.7 million over three days (fifth best ever all-time) and $235 million over the four-day holiday weekend, shattering the opening weekend record for February and Presidents’ Day weekend.
“Black Panther” may have finally proven to studio heads that major titles can open with a bang in the early months of the year. But there was a particular trend identified by movie theaters that started the ball rolling.
January and February have historically been big earning months for movies that opened in December
Fithian said what really made the studios come around was when the theaters showed the numerous December releases that did incredible ticket sales in January and February.
“What traditionally happened was that adult-skewed, non-award season movies opened in January and February, but we saw these ticket sales numbers for huge blockbusters from December carrying over to January and February,” said Fithian. “So the argument we gave to the industry was, if people are coming out in huge numbers in January and February, open big movies then.”
Like most things in Hollywood, change happens slowly. December releases that went on to have huge January and February months goes all the way back to 1997’s “Titanic,” which had earned over $400 million domestically by the end of February 1998, and went on to earn a then all-time best $659.3 million domestic lifetime gross.
It also happened with another James Cameron movie, 2009’s “Avatar.” It earned $706 million by the end of February 2010. That movie would beat “Titanic” to become the biggest domestic earner ever with $760.5 million (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” beat “Avatar” for the top spot in 2015 with $936.6 million lifetime domestic gross).
And the early year bump for December releases continues today.
After playing second fiddle to “The Last Jedi” when it opened a week after the latest “Star Wars” movie last December, Sony’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” did incredible business in January 2018. It was the number one movie in the country for most of January, and now in February it's at a $379.6 million domestic total, the second-best domestic earner ever for Sony.
20th Century Fox's 2016 release of "Deadpool" over Presidents' Day proved the theaters were right and audiences were interested in coming out this time of year. Taking in $132.4 million over three days and $152.1 million over the four-day holiday, "Deadpool" set the opening weekend records for the month and holiday before “Black Panther.” Now the performance by "Panther" again proves that the first two months of the year are fertile ground for the right kind of release.
Fithian doesn’t believe there will be a glut of big movies opening in January and February in the years to come, but he sees “Black Panther” being a game changer, as studios will be more willing to release blue chip projects earlier in the year.
Big titles on the horizon for early 2019 include “Glass” — the “Split” / “Unbreakable” sequel by M. Night Shyamalan — coming out in January, and “The Lego Movie 2” opening in February.
“The industry is certainly moving towards a more balanced release calendar,” Jeff Bock, senior analyst for Exhibitor Relations, told Business Insider. “Old Hollywood adages are being thrown out the window because audiences, no matter what season, have an insatiable appetite for event films — provided they deliver the goods.”