Hollywood’s big comeback summer has abruptly ended, and it couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time. Over the past several months, on the heels of the box-office bonanza of Top Gun: Maverick, we’ve seen more and more stories about the resurgence of movie theaters. For those of us who like to proselytize about the theatrical experience, that has been more than encouraging; it’s confirmed our belief that once audiences were reminded of how exciting it could be to see movies on the big screen, more and more segments of the population would return. And they have, to see Minions: The Rise of Gru, Elvis, The Black Phone, Nope, Where the Crawdads Sing, Thor: Love and Thunder, Jurassic World: Dominion, and, on the indie front, Everything Everywhere All at Once.
But the situation is still a delicate one, and the $30 million that Bullet Train earned this past weekend might wind up being Hollywood’s last large-ish payday for some time. The next few weeks appear to be mostly devoid of big studio films, the kind of titles that the summer-movie season feeds on. To be fair, I’m personally hopeful for Universal’s Beast, the “Idris Elba fights a lion” flick, and there’s a chance that this weekend’s “stuck on a radio tower” thriller Fall could become one of those modest, come-from-nowhere genre hits that its distributor Lionsgate used to specialize in. Otherwise, most of August looks curiously empty for anything resembling a big, box-office-friendly release, as does most of September. And as Variety reported recently, movie theaters, still in mid-recovery after getting hammered through most of 2020 and 2021, are becoming a little concerned about the lack of such pictures. Some of these theaters likely hired new staff to handle the onslaught of audiences earlier this summer, and now they’re potentially facing months of empty auditoriums. “The problem isn’t that people don’t want to go to theaters,” one of them told Variety. “We don’t have movies to show in August or September.”
There are a number of reasons for this slowdown. Some are systemic. Some are specific to this moment in time. COVID and supply-chain issues have held up many productions going back to last year, and even earlier. Partly related to this, there’s also currently a massive postproduction backlog, which means, among other things, that visual effects can’t be finished on time. (And let’s not forget that the pace of work at VFX houses was already at soul-crushing levels.)
Then there’s the fact that August has always been considered something of a dumping ground for Hollywood. Somewhat notoriously, August movies tend to be also-ran franchise pictures (think: Angel Has Fallen, Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature) or genre films that might not survive the brighter spotlight of October (The Slender Man, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged), or riskier, not-quite-star-studded studio films (Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Christopher Robin, Pete’s Dragon). This is predicated both on the notion that a lot of families (including studio executives and marketing people) are on vacation, and on the belief that by the end of the summer, audiences are often movied out. (This is presumably why Labor Day weekend, the last big summer holiday, remains a weird no-release zone.) Former Vulture editor Dan Kois even did a breakdown back in 2008 of the “awfulness of the August movie” — though his opinions on which past August releases were lousy are a fun reminder that yesterday’s trash is today’s treasure.
But we aren’t even getting “August movies” this year. This month is not a dumping ground, but a dead zone. And this year, the situation should have been different, because the spring and summer didn’t give us the glut of big releases that they would in the pre-pandemic past. This could have been a great opportunity to give some audience-friendly movies bigger runs, or to bump up a couple of releases. (To MGM/UA’s credit, they did move up George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing, an elaborate and emotional fairy-tale-inflected drama starring Idris Elba [again] and Tilda Swinton, a week, perhaps to take better advantage of the empty theaters of August.) With just a couple of bold, creative decisions, this August could have looked a lot more like July.
Even some of the films that are out this month would have benefited from a bigger push. Orphan; First Kill opens in a couple of weeks from Paramount Players, theatrically and streaming. Now, there’s a perfect August movie. And given that the first Orphan was a modest hit, and that its cult has only grown since, why not put that sucker exclusively in theaters? Or consider the touching and very funny Patton Oswalt cringe-comedy I Love My Dad, which received a small theatrical release last week ahead of its on-demand premiere later this week. Given how well the trailer played every time I saw it in theaters, I do wish that indie distributor Magnolia (which is, to be clear, not a studio, and thus unlikely to release its movies superwide) had given the comedy a more robust theatrical opening. I bet audiences would have responded.
And don’t even get me started on Amazon and Netflix, which often have any number of films that could be given a more prominent theatrical push, or any theatrical push at all. Did The Gray Man really have to open the same week as Nope? It seems like it would have been an ideal August movie. As does Kevin Hart’s The Man From Toronto. And Thirteen Lives, a stacked-cast Ron Howard film, got a mostly meaningless one-week theatrical run ahead of its Prime Video premiere this past week. I don’t even know who it was that quietly and with zero fanfare released a whole-ass Gerard Butler flick on demand this June (to be clear: It wasn’t Netflix or Amazon), but I’d certainly like to have some words with them.
So many of the hosannas for August’s new Predator entry Prey included some healthy outrage that the film, despite being a massive hit for Hulu, wasn’t being released theatrically. Some feel that, sans stars, it would have flopped as a theatrical release. Others feel that the immersive experience of the theater (not to mention the relatively open runway of August) would have worked in its favor. The actual reason why Disney didn’t release the film theatrically is weirdly convoluted: Apparently, under the rules of Disney’s purchase of Fox, any projects green-lit during the previous Fox regime and released theatrically would have had to stream on HBO Max, per an earlier agreement. So, Disney opted to send the movie straight to Hulu, because giving it a theatrical run would have meant having to share streaming revenues with a rival studio. Understandable? Sure. Cold-blooded? Perhaps. Did it benefit the film? You decide.
Hollywood has been understandably cautious, but the decision to not take advantage of August feels at this point like a huge strategic error for the studios, which were perhaps caught by surprise at how robust moviegoing has proven to be. Earlier this year, STX (which appears to be in a bit of financial limbo nowadays) had on its release calendar Guy Ritchie’s action-comedy Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, starring Jason Statham, Hugh Grant, and Aubrey Plaza. That cumbersomely titled film was slotted for March, but then mysteriously vanished off the calendar in February and hasn’t been heard from since. It’s not a question of the movie being unfinished; I saw it back when it was still due for spring. I’m still embargoed from sharing my thoughts on the film itself — though at this point by whom, I’m not sure — but I can at least say that it’s ready for release. August would have been a great time to see a new Jason Statham movie. (August is actually kind of his month — it’s when Hobbs & Shaw, The Meg, and the Expendables movies all came out.)
Hollywood’s miscalculation is understandable, but it’s also kind of tragic — and, perhaps, revealing: Disney’s decision with Prey should remind us that, in the ongoing efforts to save movie theaters, the studios (or at least the corporations that own them) aren’t always our friends. And nobody should be surprised if some of these companies eventually wind up lamenting all the money they left on the table this August. But who knows? Maybe it’s just Idris Elba’s turn to save movie theaters.