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December has become the most important month of the year for blockbusters

Winter is coming

Warner Bros.

If you were a studio planning to release a blockbuster, genre-type film, you typically want to aim for sometime between May and September. It’s just after the wave of independent films from festivals, it’s after the Oscar nominated films have worn out their welcome and, most importantly, it’s when kids are off from school.

Before Disney’s total takeover, which began in the early 2010’s, releasing a Batman movie in July was a guarantee for success. It’s why the months of June, July and August became a battleground for studios who wanted to release their biggest film of the year during a period when they’d get the most for it.

That’s no longer the case. Between Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm and their own in-house films, Disney practically owns the entire year — but especially the summer. As a result, studios have had to look to other months for their films to really make an impact, and not have to compete with the third Iron Man or Captain America movie.

That month has become December, and even though Disney has still been dominating it, the battleground is heating up.

2018 will be the big test

In 2015, Lucasfilm dominated December without question. The release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the biggest movie of the year, let alone the month, and other directors who were releasing projects around the same time knew they weren’t going to be able to compete. When The Hateful Eight started getting pulled from certain theaters to make more room for The Force Awakens, director Quentin Tarantino even called Disney out for it, adding the studio was already going to dominate the remaining three weeks of the month.

Last December, Disney owned the month once again with another Star Wars movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The movie beat out competition from Passengers, Live by Night and Assassin’s Creed, not to mention other films being released for Oscar consideration.

2017 also has a Star Wars movie coming out in December and, quite frankly, nothing is going to compete with Disney there. And that’s why 2018 is the battleground. Warner Bros. announced yesterday that it was moving Aquaman to December to take over the vacant spot left by the long-gestating sequel to Jame Cameron’s Avatar. As of right now, Disney doesn’t have any major Star Wars movies planned for that month, but that can quickly change.

In fact, I expect it to.

Why? Let’s look at the rest of their year. Before the untitled Han Solo movie is even released in May, Disney has Wreck-it Ralph 2, A Wrinkle in Time, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. Wreck-It Ralph 2, Black Panther and Infinity War are guaranteed to pull in huge numbers for the studio, and with the right marketing behind A Wrinkle in Time there’s almost no doubt that it will also be a big success.

To put it simply, Disney doesn’t need to have a Star Wars movie in May. Why shouldn’t it just push the movie back to December and continue to dominate the end of the year? It looks good on Q4 conference calls if CEO Bob Iger can point to the numbers Star Wars brought in at the end of the year before referencing the studio’s other big projects.

It’s also not like Disney is going to be scrambling to try and find summer pictures. Just after the release of the untitled Han Solo movie, Disney will release The Incredibles 2. That’s followed by a summer that includes Ant Man and the Wasp along with an untitled live-action movie from the studio. The fall will see the release of the highly-anticipated live-action Mulan movie.

It makes total sense for Disney to reorganize its release dates and take over December in the process. Not only would it space out the company’s profit from several guaranteed financial successes, like Star Wars and Marvel movies, but it would also continue the studio’s recent trend of dominating its competition.

The Disney conundrum

No one understands the power of Disney more than Warner Bros. and Fox. The two studios have had to try and rework their schedule to avoid going up against a competing film from Disney for the past couple of years. Remember, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War were both supposed to be released in May 2016, but Warner Bros. ended up pushing Batman v Superman up in order to keep the month of March to itself.

Warner Bros. also delayed Pan, it’s retelling of Peter Pan’s story, in order to avoid competing with Marvel’s Ant-Man in 2015. The studio has long been aware that if it were to go up against a Marvel movie, it probably wouldn’t do as well — people will spend their money on the latter.

Fox has also undergone similar strategies with Avatar. People were quick to point out that the studio pushed back the release date of Avatar 2 last December after Disney decided to push back the release of Rogue One. Director James Cameron later cited production issues and a need for more time, but the decision to delay the project was announced suspiciously quick after Disney made its announcement.

It’s also something no one is going to fault the studios over. Why would you want to compete against a studio that owns almost every month of the year? But it is interesting that studios are looking to December as the month to try and gain the last audience of the year.

The summer has become too packed. On top of projects from Disney, Fox, Sony, Paramount and Warner Bros., Dreamworks wants to release its animated films. There are big movies happening every week from May until September and it’s hard to find room to try and set your film apart. December, however, is an interesting month for blockbusters. The only films they were competing with before were the Oscar hopefuls. But as Disney starts to move into that space and see it as an extension of summer, the battle for who owns the month will begin to heat up.

Let the winter games begin.

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