Where did it go? Was it ever really there at all?
It’s starting to feel like if you put together a calendar of the year in movies, the result would paint an extremely lopsided, back-heavy picture. While summer 2017 has had a few triumphs—Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman—and still has some highly anticipated titles left—Baby Driver, Dunkirk—overall, it’s feeling a lot like perhaps a slightly less severe version of last summer. That is, it’s shaping up to be barren stretches of cinematic nothingness broken up by the occasional good film.
Now, expecting a new masterpiece every weekend would be ridiculous, but for some reason, I had it in my head that summer was supposed to be peak movie season. Yeah, the winter holidays are supposed to have a few blockbusters of their own, and November through January are for awards hopefuls because someone decided that voters have the long-term memory of a mayfly (though the actual support for that argument seems somewhat limited, that’s another article for another time), but I thought summer was supposed to be the time when the most anticipated of all movies were released; the sort of films that inspire winding lines for midnight screenings and lots of fans in costume. And sure, there are still some summer movies that play out like that, but even right now it seems like the most highly anticipated movies—Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, Black Panther—aren’t summer releases at all, which is especially unfortunate considering we’re still in the relatively early days of summer.
However, at least two years of this phenomenon—of summer being the time of plenty of time and nothing to see and winter being the time of plenty to see and no time to watch—lead me to wonder: was it all in my head? Has summer ever really been the peak movie season?
I decided to look at a few numbers. Now, there are a lot of numbers out there to look at and I just wanted to do something pretty basic, so I looked at two things: the top ten grossing films (worldwide) per year for the last twenty years, and Rotten Tomatoes’ top ten rated films for each year, and then made note of how many of them were summer releases, using the US release date for reference because I had to pick somewhere. Now, Summer is technically June 21 to September 22, but I took “summer” to mean May through August, because if you ever look at a list of “most anticipated summer movies,” it’s going to be a list of films released between May and August.
Movie quality is, of course, a far more subjective matter than box office returns, but I figured at least Rotten Tomatoes took into account multiple opinions, and they do some fancy math stuff that I don’t know the full details of to take into account variance in numbers of reviews when putting together their top ranked list, so it seemed like the way to go. Unfortunately, there were several films on these lists that were somewhat problematic because they either never got a proper theatrical run in the US or were released in the US in a different year than the year Rotten Tomatoes listed them under—sometimes even in the summer of a different year. I did include these films in my count, but under the summer of their release (for example, Memento was #8 on RT’s Top 100 of 2000 but had its wide theatrical release in the US May 25, 2001, so I counted it under 2001). Now, ten is a rather pathetic sample size, but I was really just trying to get a lay of the land to see what I might find. And, as you can see below, the numbers are rather messy. Now, maybe if I did the top 100 for each instead of ten, there might be some clearer trends, but that would be 4,000 data points to consider and I, quite honestly, did not have the time to do that and still have something written for today.
That said, there are still some interesting things to be noticed here. First of all, the summer of 2008 was the movie season that all summers aspire to be, with The Dark Knight being both the highest grossing and highest reviewed film of the year and Iron Man and WALL-E also earning spots on both lists. Also, with the exception of 2009, the summer movie season appears to be consistently more of a time for big movies rather than critical darlings—as far as Rotten Tomatoes’ Top 10, summer releases are underrepresented and overrepresented in more or less equal measure (considering that May through August is a third of the year, we should expect between 3 and 4 of the top 10 to be summer releases if movies are evenly distributed across the year, the actual average from 1997 to 2016 is exactly 3). Only the box office top tens show a trend that could potentially support the idea that summer used to be peak movie season but is on its way to losing that title: 2016 is the only year in the period covered where summer releases are slightly underrepresented in the top ten.
Still, looking at this list, I have to acknowledge at the very least the possibility that some of my qualms with the summer movie seasons of recent years have been due at least in part to factors other than the films themselves, like the fact that I am perhaps somewhat harder to please cinematically than when I was nine, and the way time has of making us see the past through rose-tinted glasses.
Overall, for the past twenty years, “summer movie season” has meant everything from peak time for large-scale cinematic enjoyment to dumping ground for tepid big-budget projects and unnecessary sequels from tired franchises. So maybe my concept of what a summer movie season should be is more based on idealism than actual fact, but I can still hope, as I finish watching Riverdale to appease my sister and count down the days until Baby Driver, that we are due sooner rather than later for a truly good summer of movies.