T.S. Eliot deemed April the cruelest month in his poem “The Waste Land,” but, when it comes to movies, August can be pretty brutal too. This month has long had a reputation as a kind of cinematic island of misfit toys stranded between the shiny blockbusters of the earlier summer and the prestigious awards bait of the fall. For film lovers, it can feel, along with the pre-Oscar doldrums of January, like its own kind of wasteland.
Conventional thinking has long held that August is generally a slow time for moviegoing: Kids are at sleep-away camp; families are off on trips; parents are minding household budgets in anticipation of back-to-school shopping; and audiences as a whole are fatigued from all of the tentpole spectacles of May, June and July. What better time, then, for Hollywood to quietly dispose of some of its nuclear runoff?
But in recent years that prevailing wisdom — which may never have made a ton of sense to begin with (for one thing, America isn’t France, where everyone goes on vacation simultaneously) — has started to fade. The past few years have seen August releases such as “Inglourious Basterds,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” and “The Help” break out and succeed critically and commercially.
This August is likely to accelerate the process. The month kicked off with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which earned rave reviews and scored the biggest-ever opening weekend for any August release in history by a long shot ($94 million compared with $69 million for 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum”). For an industry slogging through a weak summer, the fact that an untested Marvel space opera featuring a wise-cracking raccoon and a sentient tree posted May-or-June-sized box office numbers in August represented a much-needed shot in the arm.
This weekend will see the opening of Paramount’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” which is tracking stronger than expected despite getting a major shelling from critics. Disney will roll out its feel-good, Oprah Winfrey-produced drama “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” Warner Bros. will release its tornado thriller "Into the Storm," and Daniel Radcliffe will test his post-“Harry Potter” appeal in the indie romantic comedy “What If.” Meanwhile, the well-reviewed James Brown biopic “Get On Up,” which opened with a modest $13.6 million last weekend, should have decent legs given its A CinemaScore.
Looking ahead, the rest of August promises a wide mix of films, including bigger movies like "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," the action sequel “The Expendables 3" and the YA adaptations “The Giver” and “If I Stay” and smaller, more adult-oriented fare like “The Trip to Italy,” “Calvary,” and “Love Is Strange," a few of which have already earned some critical appreciation.
The fact is, as the tentpole business — which used to be solely the province of summer and the holiday season — increasingly becomes a year-round endeavor, outmoded ways of looking at release scheduling are crumbling quickly. The two biggest films of 2014 so far — “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “The Lego Movie” — opened in April and February, respectively.
Further shaking up long-held notions of release-date strategy, Warner Bros. just announced it is shifting the opening of its highly anticipated superhero mash-up “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” from May 6, 2016, to March 25 of that year.
With today's digitally savvy audiences demanding to see what they want, when and where they want it, we’re guaranteed to see plenty more experimentation with release strategies as studios try to keep up with rapid changes across the entertainment landscape.
Of course, as long as there are movies, there will be lousy ones — and as long as that’s the case, Hollywood will continue to look for the best, or least lousy, place to stick them. Timing film releases has always been an imperfect science at best, but it ultimately boils down to this: As Tom Ortenberg, CEO of Open Road Films, told me some years ago, ''There is never a bad time to release a good film — and there is never a good time to release a bad film.''
Now if we can just get a little love for lowly January, we might really have something.
Follow @joshrottenberg for more movie news.