There was a time when the summer movie season began with Memorial Day weekend and ended with Labour Day weekend. Traditionally, it was during the summer movie when the studios would release their biggest movies. In 1957 Gunfight at the OK Corral was released on May 30, the traditional Memorial Day. In 1968 John Wayne's controversial film The Green Berets was relesed on July 4. And in 1939 The Wizard of Oz, then the most expensive film MGM had ever made, received its wide release on August 25, 1939. Of course, even then there were blockbusters released during the Christmas season (the classic Disney version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Gone with the Wind are two early examples of this). And other big movies were sometimes released at other times of the year, but for much of their history, summer has been the season when the studios released the bulk of their major movies.
In many respects it would make perfect sense why Hollywood would look to the period between Memorial Day and Labour Day as the time to release their biggest movies. After all, the time period coincided with summer vacation in most schools. Indeed, as hard as it may be for most of us youngsters (I'm using the term loosely of anyone born after 1945) to believe, there was a time when many schools let out for summer in late April or early May and would not start again until the Tuesday after Labour Day. This probably had two major effects on the film industry. First, with school out parents would have more time to spend with their children. And, as today, it was probably true that among the activities parents would partake in with their children would be a trip to the local cinema. Second, even in the early days of film, teenagers formed a large bulk of the audience. With school out they would naturally have more time to devote to going to the movies.
Indeed, even today the period between Memorial Day and Labour Day would seem to be ideal for Hollywood to release their biggest films. While many schools are now still in session in late May and sometimes even June, and nearly all schools start in late August, it is still true that during much of this time period most children are not in school. Oddly enough, however, it seems to me that the summer movie season ceased to be the period between Memorial Day and Labour Day long ago.
Much of the changes in the summer movie season may well be due to one movie. It was in 1996 that Twister was released on May 10, over two weeks before Memorial Day weekend. The film proved to be a huge hit despite this. In its opening weekend it grossed $41,100,000. By July 21 of that year it had already grossed $230,255,000. I imagine for many Hollywood executives the writing was on the wall--they discovered that they could get a jump on the summer season by releasing films before Memorial Day. Since Twister many major motion pictures have been released before the Memorial Day weekend. The Mummy, Spider-Man, The Matrix Reloaded, and Troy were all released prior to Memorial Day. And while many of the blockbusters released before Memorial Day have bombed (for example, Troy), enough have been successful that the studios have continued to release blockbusters well before Memorial Day. This year both Poseidon (which bombed) and The Da Vinci Code were both released prior to Memorial Day weekend.
With the studios releasing many of their big movies before Memorial Day weekend (sometimes in early, early May--Spider-Man was released May 3, 2002), it seems to me that Memorial Day weekend has ceased to be the beginning of the summer movie season. For all practical purposes, I believe that it might be better to consider May 1 to be the beginning of the summer movie season. Indeed, since the release of Twister in 1996, there has also evolved a phenomenon in the movie industry my best friend has termed "front loading." Quite simply, front loading occurs when the studios release the bulk of their movies early in the summer. In recent years, it seems as if the majority of blockbuster movies have been released in May and June. Indeed, it seems as if in recent years the latest in the summer the stuidos appear willing to release a big movie is the weekend of July 4. Following July 4 it seems that comedies, a few smaller genre films (Snakes on a Plane is an example), and independent features are what compose the majority of releases. For all extents and purposes, then, I think that the summer movie season ends with July 4. Think of it, this year how many of the big blockbusters were released in the United States after July 4? Maybe my memory is failing me, but I cannot think of a one.
Of course, in conjunction with the shift of the summer movie season from its traditonal Memorial Day-Labor Day period to a new May 1-July 4 period, it also seems to me that the Holiday movie season has gotten bigger. Think of the major movies released in November and December the past few years. Some of the Harry Potter movies, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong were all released in the Holiday movie season. This year November will see the release of the latest Bond movie Casino Royale and the animated feature Happy Feet. December will see the release of Charlotte's Web and Eragon. Indeed, to underline the signficance of the Holiday movie season, consider how many times in the past few years the highest grossing films have been released in November or December? In some respects, it almost seems as if summer has grown less important to the movie industry and the Holidays have grown more so.
As to why the summer movie season has moved slightly from what it once was, I think in some respects it is due to two factors. The primary of these factors is money. With Twister the studios learned they could make a lot of money in releasing movies prior to Memorial Day. The success of Spider-Man simply underscored that fact. Of course, simple greed is also the reason for front loading. In order to get their movies out before anyone else, the studios release their films earlier in the summer in order to (theoretically, anyway) reduce any competition and maximise profit.
The other factor may be that going to movies simply is not a family activity any more. Most of the people I know who regularly go to the movies either do not take their children to the movies or do not have children. The only time they might take their children to the movies is when the latest Pixar or Harry Potter movie comes out. If going to the movies is no longer the family activity it once was, then the vagaries of the school year becomes insignificant. Why worry about whether school is in session if the kids aren't going to the movies anyway? This explains how films can be released before school is out and still be hits.
As to whether the summer movie season ceasing to be from Memorial Day to Labour Day and become from May 1 to July 4 is a good thing, I guess that is debatable. Personally, I am not real crazy about it. The past several years I have found myself going to the movies almost weekly from early May to early July. From early July into September it is not unusual for me not to see one single movie in the theatre for the simple reason that there is nothing I want to see. This year has been an exception. Both Snakes on a Plane and The Illusionist were released in August. I went to see Snakes on a Plane, but I probably won't get to see The Illusionist (the nearest theatre that's showing it is 30 miles away and this is a busy period for my job). Personally, I would prefer that the studios spread their major releases out over the summer as they once did, with a few released in June, a few in July, and a few in August. It would certainly make things easier on my schedule, and I suspect other people's schedules as well. Besides, what better time to go to the movies than in the deathly heat of July and August? Sadly, I don't think the summer movie season is going to revert back to its original time period any time soon.