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Why Labor Day Weekend Is Hollywood's Dumping Ground

August 29, 2014
Sandra Bullock Bradley Cooper All About Steve
Sandra Bullock Bradley Cooper All About Steve

So many holidays — Memorial Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas — are celebrated with the arrival of huge tentpole movies. Yet Labor Day is historically marked by the ignominious debut of some of the most anticlimactic films of the year. Take this summer. On Memorial Day moviegoers flooded theaters for the highly anticipated X-Men: Days of Future Past. And on this Labor Day weekend they get the new low-budget horror flick As Above/So Below, and the Pierce Brosnan non-Bond spy thriller that has barely gotten any press, The November Man. On the other holidays, expectations run high and studios stake their claim to the dates by scheduling releases years in advance. If your movie lands on Labor Day, you know you’re already in trouble.

The rap on Labor Day is so bad that it’s become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s accepted as fact that new releases won’t perform well, so studios tend to schedule weaker product — if they schedule anything at all — and it inevitably underperforms. The Labor Day Club includes such doomed titles as Nicolas Cage’s unintentionally hilarious The Wicker Man, Vin Diesel’s instantly forgotten Babylon A.D. and Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper’s widely mocked comedy All About Steve (which sat on a shelf for two years before opening). It’s a trend that dates at least as far back as 1984’s Bolero — the Bo Derek vanity project that took home six Razzies. (All About Steve only got two.)

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In a way, Labor Day is a victim of its own timing. It’s too late to be an attractive date for a big summer movie, because why launch something at the exact time kids are going back to school, families are resuming their busy fall schedules and the allure of summer fun for adults shifts back to the full-time realities of the work world?

At the same time, it’s too early for the fall push for awards contention. Only one recent Labor Day wide release, 2005’s The Constant Gardener, went on to get Oscar nominations (and a win for supporting actress Rachel Weisz). However, that year it received a boost from its splashy international premiere at the Venice Film Festival in early September, after its U.S. opening. These days, the big fall festivals (Venice, Toronto, Telluride) are more interested in world premieres: a U.S. release right before festival season begins could preempt that exposure and compromise your Oscar campaign, and no one wants that.

But could Labor Day become a valuable date if studios just gave it a shot? After all, they have been having great success expanding outside of the conventional-wisdom “hit seasons” for other dates. Summer movie season used to begin on Memorial Day, but now blockbusters like Fast Five and Captain America: The Winter Soldier open in April and break opening-weekend records. Warner Bros. has scheduled the hotly anticipated Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice for March 25, 2016 — a time that worked well for The Hunger Games in 2012. But even as calendar preconceptions are challenged elsewhere around the year, still nobody believes that Labor Day has a chance.

There have been the rare successes on the weekend, but they’re usually low-budget genre fare with low expectations. (Hence the opening of the $5 million As Above, So Below.) The Weinstein Company counterintuitively slotted Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween for Labor Day weekend 2007 and wound up with $30 million, the holiday’s all-time biggest opener. However, no film has come close to Halloween since. Only two other titles have even opened above $20 million — 2012’s The Possession and 2005’s Transporter 2 — and both just barely hit that mark.

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The main goal with these kinds of genre pictures is to make a little money catering to a base of loyalists and get some title recognition that helps when the film moves on to the theatrical afterlife.

It’s tempting to imagine how a star-driven summer underperformer like Edge of Tomorrow or an outright flop like A Million Ways to Die In the West might benefit from opening on a competition-free holiday weekend instead of having tried and failed to get traction amidst the big boys of summer. The problem is that even if you scored on Labor Day, you’d have a huge handicap from that point on, as September is reliably the lowest grossing box office month of the year. You stand a far better chance of accumulating bigger grosses if you open earlier in summer, or on a historically more lucrative holiday like President’s Day or even Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. (The divisive reimagining of Halloween fell apart fast and closed with just under $60 million total.)

Just a cursory glance at the record books is enough to scare away most scheduling gurus. If Halloween represents the current ceiling for both opening weekends and subsequent final grosses, things don’t get any more encouraging when you look at the holdover movies that won the weekend. In 1999, sleeper hit phenomenon The Sixth Sense took in just under $30 million over Labor Day, its fifth weekend in theaters; but seriously, that was a phenomenon. The all-time Labor Day top 10 still includes the decade-old Signs and two-decade-old The Fugitive (both were also in their fifth weeks), plus week three of The Butler and week four of The Help.

That’s why the best bet to top this weekend’s box office isn’t a flashy new release, but the fifth weekend of Guardians of the Galaxy. That may sound like old news to frequent moviegoers, but for Labor Day it’s as good as it gets.

Photo credit: Suzanne Tenner/20th Century Fox