Column: Studio films hijack the holidaysBy David Jones | 11/14/2017 11:25pm
To most people, the flipping of the calendar from October to November signals holiday season. For film buffs, it signals the arrival of award-seeking films. In order to keep their freshness in Oscar voters’ minds and create a public buzz, prestige pictures from studios will start to release around holiday season. Most years, it is glorious. This year, not so much. Award-level films that are carrying tons of film festival buzz have always come to town around this time each year, but this year they just aren’t getting here. This is happening for a simple reason. Blockbuster studio films are hijacking the holiday season.
At this time last year, I had seen “Hell or High Water,” “Moonlight,” “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Arrival,” with “Manchester by the Sea” and other Best Picture nominees soon following. This year in the holiday season, I have seen the third installment in Marvel’s “Thor” franchise, the eighth installment in the “Saw” franchise and a remake of a film based on a book in the form of “Murder on the Orient Express.” That isn’t even mentioning the soon-arriving mega blockbuster “Justice League” from Warner Brothers and the newest Pixar film, “Coco.” Take a peek down the road to December, and there is a Dreamworks animated adaptation of “The Story of Ferdinand,” a “Jumanji” reboot starring The Rock, a third “Pitch Perfect” film and the next episode of the behemoth “Star Wars” franchise
There isn’t necessarily a problem with these mega-budget films existing or coming out during what is typically Oscar season. In a perfect world, studio blockbusters and high-brow Oscar fodder exist in perfect harmony. That being said, business in the film industry is quite far from a perfect world. No problem is posed for those who live in or around major film cities like Los Angeles, New York City or Atlanta, as most every film will release there regardless of its business status. However, for the rest of the country, it is becoming less and less likely to see the less-financially-supported Oscar films like they usually can.
This new trend of holiday season blockbusters can more or less be traced back to 2015 with Disney’s December release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” With the rapidly growing number of massive blockbusters releasing each year, studios started to realize that they can’t all share the Summer season and expect to make a return on their nine-digit investments, so when Disney wanted to roll out what was perhaps the most hyped film in the past decade, they released it at Christmas time. They knew that the return of Star Wars was a big enough occasion to compete with any awards contenders that were releasing, so they took the chance to make themselves the exclusive blockbuster, and they succeeded with the film making over 2 billion dollars worldwide. One year later in 2016, Disney released Marvel’s “Dr. Strange” in November followed by “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” in December, and both were financially profitable. After 2015 and 2016, the rest of the studio industry started to follow Disney, as they often do, so now we have our situation in 2017 with smaller independent films too afraid to release wide and compete with blockbusters like “Justice League” and “Star Wars.”
Another way these studios are manipulating the films of the season is by jacking up the prices for theaters to screen their films. This issue has been causing the steady rise in movie ticket sales, and it hasn’t been slowing down. This doesn’t only affect film goers’ wallets, but also the theaters’ funds. When the theaters shell out so much money to screen a blockbuster that will attract several patrons, they don’t always have the money to turn around and pay to screen a smaller prestige film that might not get as many patrons into seats. Disney recently laid out new requirements of theaters in order to screen the upcoming “Star Wars” film that are squeezing theaters tighter than ever, which has lead to many theaters refusing to screen what will almost certainly be the highest grossing film of 2017.
Along with the recent advent of the early-year blockbuster releases with the likes of “Deadpool” and “Logan,” the new trend of holiday season blockbusters is starting to make every season blockbuster season. This isn’t as much of a negative thing as much as it is an observation of something that is certainly happening in the American film industry. It is a trend which I feel cannot be kept up and will almost certainly lead to a major industry shift, whether that be the fall of multiplex theaters, the fall of a couple major studios or just a reframing of award shows at large. Either way, I want to be able to catch some Oscar films before the end of the year without having to drive to an Atlanta theater to do so.