There’s a saying that in Hollywood there are only two seasons: summer and not summer. This is only partially true. While summer is still the brass ring every budding film production aspires to, of equal importance has always been the Christmas holiday season.
Since Star Wars premiered the Wednesday before Memorial Day in 1977, in hopes of not being swallowed by mega-star Burt Reynolds’s Smokey and the Bandit over the holiday weekend, Hollywood had been holding out their event movies for roughly between the pre-Memorial Day Wednesday spot and the last-gasp-before-school-starts Labor Day weekend. That was pretty much the unwritten rule for years until box office tracking became more precise. If you were a major star, you had two choices: open your big, dumb action movie during summer or open your big, dumb comedy during Christmas, which started the day before Thanksgiving. Academy Award hopefuls, in particular, coveted the Christmas day slot. Occasionally there was some crossover but one thing was certain: the rest of the year was for losers.
That’s not to say an off-season film couldn’t be a surprise hit. Lethal Weapon came out in March of 1987 and launched a summer franchise. But March was not where studios placed their big name pictures.
This thinking has begun to drift a bit, and part of the blame may be placed at the feet of the movie franchise that started it all. The hotly anticipated The Phantom Menace bucked Star Wars tradition and opened over a week before the Memorial Day weekend, and on a Thursday at that. Since then, studios started experimenting with more non-traditional openings for their big-name projects. When Spider-Man debuted in 2002, it did so as early in May as possible. Later, studios would begin launching big budget action and sci-fi movies like 300 and Clash of the Titans in March, and even Daredevil had its premiere in February.
But that was not the norm for the action stars of the 80s. It was during this time that big guns like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise ruled the box office. While Stallone and Willis have had somewhat unstable careers, Stallone has always brought with him a big star pedigree, and you can bet that he’ll open a Rocky or Rambo movie in the summer. At least until 2008’s Rambo was dumped in the disreputable post-Christmas wasteland of January. The message was clear: Rambo is over the hill and can’t open in the now brutally competitive holiday lineup.
Willis, for his part, has been all over the calendar with his film openings but that’s because he doesn’t pin himself down to any particular genre. His career has come back so many times that it hardly matters what time of year audiences pay to see him. The same can’t be said of his signature film series Die Hard. All four films in that series opened in the summer. It’s a powerhouse franchise. So what does it say that the next episode, A Good Day to Die Hard, has been demoted to Valentine’s Day, two weeks after Stallone’s own Bullet to the Head?
Cruise and Schwarzenegger, in particular, have been associated with big holiday openings for the bulk of their careers. Since Raw Deal in 1986, only Schwarzenegger’s Collateral debuted outside of the holidays. Yet The Last Stand, in theatres today, seems appropriately titled since it opens in the disfavored January block (along with Gangster Squad, another winter throwaway).
Cruise’s track record is perhaps the best of the lot. He’s opened every single film during summer or Christmas since Cocktail in 1988. It seems, however, that the beleaguered star has lost a bit of lustre. The latest Mission: Impossible, though well-received and the biggest hit in that series since part II, got kicked out of its May spot to land in December. Still, it managed to hang on to the holidays. Even 2012 saw his Jack Reacher given a respectable December slot. But look at his next film, Oblivion, opening this April, a spot usually reserved for early-early-early summer wannabes like Fast Five.
So what does this all mean? Have classic action stars simply grown too old for younger audiences? Or is the movie star truly dead as some claim? But then perhaps they died decades ago and we’ve only been carrying their corpses, unwilling to let them go. Looking at the biggest hits of the last few years, it does indeed seem that concept is king. While Cruise and Schwarzenegger could still open the occasional Mission: Impossible or Terminator sequel, fantasy movies like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and merchandise movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers, as well as comic book movies more concerned with character actors than movies stars took over.
The Expendables showed there was still life in some of the old guard, but its sequel had a tepid reception, effectively raining out the welcome home party. With Oblivion shut out of the summer lineup, we may finally be seeing the final nail slowly pushed into the movie star coffin.
At least until Mission: Impossible 5.