On Oct. 1, just as the Olympic athletes are packing up their javelins and track shoes and heading home, another bloody, against-the-odds battle will get under way. High-profile films like Kevin Spacey’s Pay It Forward and Sylvester Stallone’s Get Carter will face off against one of moviedom’s greatest adversaries: the fall box office doldrums.
Here’s the tale of the tape: Out of the 207 films that have ever passed the $100 million mark, only two — yes, two — that did it in their initial run were October releases. (And they were both John Travolta movies: 1989’s Look Who’s Talking and 1994’s Pulp Fiction.) Compare that with June’s 45 movies and December’s 32 movies and you’ll understand why October is considered one of the cruelest months for films. (Other blockbuster-less zones include April, which has had only one $100 million topper — 1993’s Indecent Proposal — and the four-smash February.)
Whatever the cause — work, school, adieu-to-daylight-saving parties — Hollywood knows people don’t go to the movies as often as they do in summer and at Christmas, when tickets are bought 24-7. This dictum creates a self-fulfilling prophecy for the studios: By keeping Sure Things for the hot BO seasons (usually 40 percent of the year’s gross comes from summer), smaller, riskier movies wind up with the toughest slots. ”When you’re talking about the millions of dollars it takes to produce and market a film, do you want to take the chance [with an unproven month]?” says Exhibitor Relations Co.’s Paul Dergarabedian. The Sixth Sense — originally scheduled for October — could have set a precedent, but once Disney saw how well it was testing, it was shifted to August.
Of course, just because the off months aren’t filled with six-figure winners doesn’t mean some good films can’t earn respectable grosses. Last year’s Three Kings made $60.7 million, and 1995’s Get Shorty (with, yes, Travolta) brought in $72.1 million.
And for some studios, the blockbuster vacuum provides the perfect rationale to open in October. Artisan claims that finishing Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 would have been a rush for summer (when the first was a $140.5 million smash), but it sounds like the studio was also spooked by the competition. ”If we’d released this film in the middle of summer, we’d be up against 75 $100 million movies with huge stars,” says Artisan distribution head Steve Rothenberg. ”We felt it would make more sense to position it as the film everybody had to see on the Halloween weekend.”
Fox’s Bedazzled is another example. Starring Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley, it was initially scheduled for August, but director Harold Ramis believed his satanic comedy could cash in on Halloween. Plus, he learned the pitfalls of leaping into the crowded summer after his well-testing Multiplicity, starring Michael Keaton, tanked in July 1996. ”You could have the greatest movie in the world,” says Ramis, ”and if you open against the wrong film, you’re really going nowhere.” This is also why many smaller films — like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (New Line) — opt for October, giving them more room to capitalize on word of mouth.