Ah, Labor Day! That glorious day-off commemorating laborers across the US, and serving as a fine exclamation point on the sinful summer season. It's a great day for vacationers (unless you happen to have spent your Labor Day on an Amtrak train...), but alas, it's not such a great time for the the fine folks who produce cinema.
Indeed, this August has been one of the slowest in quite a while. Consider a couple of things: First, I couldn't even recall when asked this weekend, what the major releases were this past Friday. Upon further inspection, they were "Babylon A.D." and "Disaster Movie", although the latter in less than 3,000 theaters. Secondly, only two different films have occupied the top spot at the box office over the last seven weekends. Two films! They, of course, were "Tropic Thunder", which has been #1 now for three consecutive weeks, and "The Dark Knight", which held that spot for the four preceding weeks. And, thirdly, you have to go back to 2002 to find a 35th week that brought in less than the $73 million that came in this past weekend.
Diving into the numbers is even more fun. Below are the total revenues of the top 12 films in each of the last three weeks in August. While summer may often be considered the season for blockbusters, it's clear that that doesn't include the 8th month of the year. In fact, not once during any of weeks 33, 34, or 35 have the top 12 films combined to even sniff the total "Dark Knight" took home in its first 3 days.
(One note, because Labor Day falls on a range of different weekends, I'm using only the 3-day totals. That definitely screws with the numbers some, as this year's 4-day haul was a slightly more respectable $93 million, but for the sake of comparison, I've just gone with 3-day totals all around.)
33 - $98,812,402
34 - $83,107,152
35 - $78,053,732
33 - $90,037,315
34 - $84,086,340
35 - $78,288,318
33 - $114,003,153
34 - $88,882,100
35 - $97,371,568
33 - $111,672,294
34 - $88,362,000
35 - $73,939,000
Week 33 Average - $103,631,291
Week 34 Average - $86,109,398
Week 35 Average - $81,913,154
33 to 35 Drop-off - 20.96%
By way of comparison, consider that week 25 averaged roughly $128 million over the same time period. And week 29, in which "Dark Knight" dropped this year — so admittedly a cherry-picked date — has averaged $168 million.
A lot of things could account for this drop-off in movie going enthusiasm among the public. Maybe most likely is sheer burnout; over the last decade, so much marketing energy has been focused on the late-April to late-July time period, that by the time August rolls around, we can't even stand to think about walking into a theater. August, and late-August in particular, may also be a bigger vacation time, which would distract folks from the machinations of Hollywood.
The explanation I think makes the most compelling argument though is that the releases during this time period are just god-awful, and discerning audiences have more or less stayed away. It's funny to think that exactly a year ago, the #1 film at the box office was Zombie's "Halloween." While in retrospect, its $26 million doesn't look all that impressive, it set a record for the largest 4-day labor day weekend opening. This year, the studios were lucky to have anything marshal even half of that. "Babylon A.D", the highest grossing new release of the weekend, brought in a laughable $12 million — a number that looks even worse when taken in context with the film's $70 million budget.
If one wants to find any bright spots in this Labor Day weekend's box office numbers, I might suggest "Traitor" and "Mamma Mia". The former was a smaller scale new release that with middle-of-the-road reviews (60 at Metacritic) managed to pull in the highest per screen numbers of all the films in the top 12 (it was a modest $4,868, but still). The latter film saw its revenue go up more than a third over last week's results, and also hung onto a spot in the top ten. "Mamma Mia" was released seven weeks ago, along with "The Dark Knight", and both films have been regulars on the box office charts ever since. At $132 million total, "Mamma Mia" is now the 3rd highest grossing musical since 1974, and is this year's 8th highest grossing film worldwide.
Going forward, there are some big names (De Niro and Pacino, The Coen Brothers, Nic Cage) with movies coming out, but we've definitely passed through the gluttonous summer period. Gaudy numbers like those seen during June and July are gone, but hopefully, they'll be replaced with some higher quality film offerings.