How Are Movie Release Dates Chosen?

Robert Downey Jr. was probably smiling because he knew "Avengers: Age of Ultron," scheduled for a May 1 U.S. release, was going to be a hit. The first installment opened on May 4, 2012, and once held the record for the biggest opening weekend in the U.S.
Robert Downey Jr. was probably smiling because he knew "Avengers: Age of Ultron," scheduled for a May 1 U.S. release, was going to be a hit. The first installment opened on May 4, 2012, and once held the record for the biggest opening weekend in the U.S.
Brad Barket/Getty Images

The movie industry has always been associated with huge numbers, from the stars' staggering salaries to the ever-increasing box office hauls. As the costs of making a movie soar thanks to new technology and cutting-edge special effects, another number has taken center stage -- the movie's price tag. Mega blockbusters can easily cost $200 million or more, leaving studio executives and others in the industry desperate to maximize ticket sales in an effort to recoup their massive investment in the film.

So how does Hollywood even begin to make up for a $200 million outlay, much less make a profit? Marketing, star power and subject matter all affect ticket sales, but when it comes to the modern blockbuster, timing really is everything.

Release dates have always been important to the movie industry -- after all, when was the last time a movie broke box office records after a late January or early December release? With more films competing for moviegoers' attention these days, the competition for key release dates has led studios to announce release dates three, four or even five years in advance, often for movies that haven't been made yet.

For an example of this phenomenon, look no further than comic book giant Marvel Studios. In 2014, Marvel made headlines when it revealed dates for six (mostly untitled) films to be released through 2019, all scheduled for blockbuster weekends and holidays [source: Graser]. The previous year, Disney and Pixar staked their claim to summer, Thanksgiving and spring dates for yet-to-be-made movies that the studios will release through 2018 [source: Cunningham].

Why so much fuss over release dates for movies yet to be titled or even filmed? Read on to find out how timing can make or break a movie at the box office.

Timing and Ticket Sales

About 60 percent of all tickets sold during the year are sold in the summertime. No wonder studios fight for those special time slots.
About 60 percent of all tickets sold during the year are sold in the summertime. No wonder studios fight for those special time slots.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

For many years, studios primarily set release dates based on when the audience for a given film was most likely to attend a movie. Want to sell tickets for a romantic comedy? Schedule it for Valentine's Day weekend, when couples gunning for date night ideas are likely to head to the theater to see a love story play out on screen. Trying to maximize ticket sales on a family film? Pick a release date in the summer or around the holidays, when the kids are out of school.

Some weekends are simply good for movie releases regardless of genre. Roughly 60 percent of all movie tickets sold throughout the year are sold during the summer, when people have plenty of free time and are looking for a place to escape the summer heat [source: PBS Frontline]. Of course, not every summer weekend is a sure thing for theaters. The Fourth of July is traditionally a busy time for movies, but if the holiday itself falls on a Friday, potential ticket buyers may be too busy watching fireworks to fill theaters. While May, June and July are ideal for big blockbusters because they tend to bring box office records, August is slower, as kids and parents sneak in a last-minute vacation or prepare to head back to school [source: Hicks].

Holiday weekends are also the perfect time to release a film. People are off of work and school and looking for ways to entertain kids or out-of-town guests. After the presents have been unwrapped or the last bit of turkey is gone, a trip to the movies is the perfect way to wind down.

While studios have always angled for release on a dozen or so key weekends throughout the year, the choice of movie release date has grown even more critical in recent years, as the studios produce greater numbers of films, all competing for your eyes -- and dollars. Next, learn how the crowded market has transformed the choice of movie release dates into a cutthroat battle between the studios.

Battle at the Box Office

Here today, gone tomorrow: Movie execs have to fight even harder for the perfect release date since films don't stay in theaters too long anymore.
Here today, gone tomorrow: Movie execs have to fight even harder for the perfect release date since films don't stay in theaters too long anymore.
Marcus Ingram/Getty Images

Movie release dates have grown increasingly important over the past decade thanks to the sheer number of films being released. The Motion Picture Association of America reports that Hollywood produced around 500 major movies in 2004. By 2009, that number had increased by a respectable 13 percent, with 557 pictures hitting the screens. Fast-forward four more years to 2013, and the number of major theater releases hit a whopping 659 [source: Motion Picture Association of America].

With so many movies in the mainstream, studios have had to rethink how they select release dates. After all, the more movies competing at the box office, the less each is destined to make. Moviegoers only have so much disposable income, so spreading it across a greater number of titles erodes box office numbers for everyone.

The increase in the number of films has also changed the way movies make money. Where they once were able to linger for weeks in theaters, making a respectable sum weekend after weekend, movies tend to burn out much faster these days. They earn a full one-third of their domestic gross in their opening weekend, then hang around for a relatively short period before clearing out to make room for the next big thing [sources: Eller and Friedaman].

So how have studios changed their release date strategy to reflect changing times? Many have turned to announcing release dates before a film is complete in an attempt to throw down the gauntlet and claim historically blockbuster weekends for themselves. This often requires picking a release date several years in advance, which has its own set of risks -- mainly that it locks in a completion date, which may result in a rushed, inferior film.

Naming release dates well in advance also lets competitors know your plans, which can be a good or bad thing depending on the situation. In some cases, competitive studios will simply pick a different weekend to avoid going head-to-head at the box office with another potential blockbuster. Others will select the date they want regardless of which studio has staked a claim.

For example, Warner Brothers set its film "Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice" to open on May 6, 2016. Good timing, as movies released in early May often break records. Unfortunately, Marvel liked this date too and chose it for "Captain America: Civil War." To avoid splitting the box office with another superhero film, Warner Brothers simply switched their release to March 25, 2016, more than two months earlier than previously scheduled [source: Ebiri].

As studios continue to produce greater numbers of films, the summer movie season could simply grow longer, which would allow each film to bask largely alone in the spotlight for a single weekend. If the public insists on sticking to the traditionally busy summer and holiday weekends at the movies, more films may be stuck sharing release dates, leaving studios to deal with the effects of smaller box office hauls.

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Sources

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  • Box Office Mojo. "Opening Weekends." (Aug. 22, 2014) http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/weekends/
  • Box Office Mojo. "Weekend Records Through the Years." (Aug. 22, 2014) http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/weekends/pastrecords.htm
  • Cunningham, Todd. "Disney Animation, Pixar Sets Release Dates Through 2018." The Wrap. May 29, 2013. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://www.thewrap.com/movies/article/death-taxes-and-disney-animation-june-and-november-94396/
  • Ebiri, Bilge. "Heroes of Hollywood's Summer Box Office (In a Haf Shell)." Bloomberg Businessweek. Aug. 21, 2014. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-08-21/hollywoods-summer-box-office-saved-by-ninja-turtles
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  • Graser, Marc. "Marvel Studios Dates Five Untitled Movies Through 2019." Variety. July 18, 2014. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://variety.com/2014/film/news/marvel-studios-dates-five-untitled-movies-through-2019-1201264988/
  • Hicks, Chris. "The Dog Days of Summer Bring Out Movies That Are Dogs." Deseret News. Aug. 21, 2014. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865609290/The-dog-days-of-summer-bring-out-movies-that-are-dogs.html
  • Motion Picture Association of America. "Theatrical Market Statistics 2013." 2014. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://www.mpaa.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/MPAA-Theatrical-Market-Statistics-2013_032514-v2.pdf
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