Note: The original version of this story appeared in the April 2017 issue of Boxoffice Magazine.
CinemaCon 2017 is in the books, and as tradition would have it, attendees are officially resetting the countdown clock until the marquee confab’s return to Vegas in April 2018.
But, for a third straight year, studios and exhibitors left home with a reasonably confident outlook toward the remainder of the year’s release slate. This time, 2017 doesn’t just look poised to bring us another yearly box office record—it may zoom past it with ease.
First, some perspective: Record years at the box office used to be commonplace. During the 1980s and late 1990s through early 2000s, total box office earnings in North America frequently improved year over year with only a few exceptions. Seven yearly records were set between 1981 and 1989, and 12 more between 1993 and 2004. 1991’s $4.9 billion haul nearly doubled by the time 2004 was over, with $9.4 billion. (Everyone has an opinion on ticket price inflation debates, so we’ll leave those aside here.)
Since then, a number of factors ranging from the pros and cons of Hollywood’s increasing reliance upon franchises to the proliferation of stronger television content and the ever-evolving ways in which audiences (especially young ones) consume their entertainment have changed the game. They—along with other elements—combined to result in less guarantee of the consistent benchmarks that were typical a generation ago when movies couldn’t be watched in the palm of one’s hand.
Whereas 19 individual years set new box office records almost like clockwork between 1981 and 2004, it has only occurred six times since the end of that era. Moreover, total box office earnings haven’t shown year-over-year improvement (regardless of records) in three consecutive years since the end of a monumental 13-year run from 1992 through 2004.
At least for now, the status quo is changing.
Following the first-ever $11 billion year in 2015 ($11.13 billion), and an even stronger 2016 ($11.38 billion) despite its notable dry periods, 2017 (through May 3) is already pacing more than 3 percent ahead of 2016 and more than 7 percent over 2015. We can thank a phenomenal first quarter driven by the likes of Beauty and the Beast, The Fate of the Furious, Logan, Get Out, Split, Hidden Figures, La La Land, The LEGO Batman Movie, The Boss Baby, Kong: Skull Island, and others for the excellent jump start.
A few years ago, the conversation centered on how more studios needed to aim for non-summer and non-holiday release windows to embrace the year-round calendar as a viable option for scheduling blockbuster candidates. They started listening, and 2017 is poised to reap the rewards in the biggest way yet: following a $2.9 billion first quarter start, we’re projecting all three remaining quarters to exceed $2.75 billion each—with Q4 having a realistic chance to top $3 billion. In all, the box office is pacing toward an overall 2017 gross north of $11.5 billion, with optimistic projections reaching as high as $11.7 billion to $11.8 billion.
How will we get there, though?
As with any potential record-breaking year, there are certain films that must generally live up to high expectations while still leaving room for others to break out. With Beauty and the Beast currently pacing to become the eighth highest earner of all-time in North America (and the highest ever outside the summer or Christmas seasons), April’s The Fate of the Furious also proved to be another pre-summer hit.
Following that, Marvel is now set to open the summer box office yet again with May 5’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.—a title that has generated the kind of buzz typical of films that go on to compete for the $400 million club. That’s coming from a franchise that many in the industry viewed as Marvel’s biggest risk just a few years ago. Now it’s on the so-called A-list and stands as one of their premier sub-franchises.
Beyond Marvel, this May also looks considerably stronger on paper than last year, with films like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Baywatch, Alien: Covenant, Snatched, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword all scheduled to open before Memorial Day. Things won’t slow down much heading into June, when Transformers: The Last Knight, Wonder Woman, The Mummy, Cars 3, and sleeper contenders like Baby Driver, All Eyez on Me, and It Comes at Night await a variety of audiences.
July may boast the highest potential of the summer, though. From Spider-Man: Homecoming and Despicable Me 3 to Dunkirk, War for the Planet of the Apes, The House, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and The Emoji Movie, moviegoers will have a plethora of choices—both of the original film and sequel varieties—at their local multiplexes.
Beyond what may be a fairly quiet August outside of The Dark Tower and Annabelle: Creation, September will bring promising titles like Stephen King’s It (which has already generating an unexpected record level of online trailer views), Kingsman: The Golden Circle, and The LEGO Ninjago Movie.
The final quarter will bring us home with an utterly packed end-of-year slate: October’s Blade Runner 2049 and the next Cloverfield installment; November’s Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, Coco, Murder on the Orient Express, Daddy’s Home 2, and Suburbicon; then, finally, December’s basket of blockbusters and award-season candidates ranging from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Pitch Perfect 3 to the Hugh Jackman–led Greatest Showman on Earth, Steven Spielberg’s The Post, and Alexander Payne’s Downsizing.
That’s not even counting smaller films whose potential awards buzz won’t be measurable until later this year.
Oh, and there’s some little movie called Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which will only have to contend with its Force Awakens predecessor in terms of challenging various all-time records. It’s probably worth mentioning, too.
Bottom line: February, March, April, August, and October have already proven capable of supporting high-profile releases with blockbuster levels of attendance thanks to respective examples like Deadpool, The Hunger Games, The Jungle Book, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Gravity. If the industry continues committing to this kind of output, we aren’t far from a future that sees a month like January or September host a tentpole superhero film or some other four-quadrant event that demands theatrical viewing and smashes more box office preconceptions.
Long story made (somewhat) short: Yes, summer and the holidays are still of paramount importance because that’s when kids are out of school and adults take vacation time. But the fruits of the industry’s labor to extend “movie season” beyond a few key months out of the year have been ripening sporadically throughout the past half-decade. 2017 is the year, with its mammoth potential to reach another record and possibly run toward $11.5 billion (barring some unforeseen circumstance), that we get closer to reaping the rewards.
Even as we enter the time of popcorn flicks that May and the coming months promise, it’s time for us to retire the expression “it feels like summer movie season” when films crush those old preconceptions and do big business in the dead of winter—or the heart of autumn. Nowadays, every season is movie season.