So the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (or just TIFF) draws to a close, marking the beginning of a new film season. What do I mean by that? From what I’ve noticed through my own observations, movie releases in North America tend to follow an industry schedule that divides the calendar year into blockbuster and prestige seasons. Films that are completed months or years in advance (and occasionally given worldwide premieres at major festivals) wait for the right time of the year to be released into theatres nationwide so as the make the best impact, critically and financially.
The summer months (May to July) are the standard season to release huge, crowd-pleasing action and comedy films. Typically franchise tent-poles, like superhero movies, major YA sequels, or anything starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (one of Hollywood’s highest paid actors), get all the attention here. Audiences are in summer vacation mode and expect light-hearted, family-friendly fare and loud, colourful spectacles worthy of 3D or IMAX ticket premiums. Opening weekend box office records tend to be set and smashed in the blockbuster season.
Out of the top five domestic opening weekend earners of all time, three of them are Marvel movies (The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Captain America: Civil War) released in early May and one is a franchise feature (Jurassic World) released in June. The outlier Star Wars: The Force Awakens sits in first place, even though it was released in December, perhaps due to its unique cultural standing.
Shortly after the festival frenzy at TIFF every September comes the all-important, prestige season. Films released in the cooler months (October to December) are typically serious, cerebral dramas that are jostling for consideration in major industry awards, especially the Oscars. These films are usually opportunities for well-respected actors and directors to reveal their best material and hopefully receive critical acclaim. Genre and holiday-themed movies balance out the heavier fare with Christmas becoming the prime release period for a big box office draw (i.e. a Star Wars movie).
The last three Best Picture Oscar winners—Birdman (2014), Spotlight (2015), and Moonlight (2016)—were given wide-releases in the months of October and November, but also premiered at various film festivals earlier in their respective years.
Films that are not expected to draw as much interest as expensive blockbusters or Oscar-worthy dramas tend to get quiet releases in the months of January, February, August, and September. These typically ignored releases tend to result in poor box office earnings as audiences switch away from summer and winter holiday modes and head back to school or work. Studios, having exhausted their best picks in the blockbuster and prestige seasons, wait for the next cycle to release their new big-name, star-studded movies while dumping less-impactful ones in the doldrums.