Hollywood filmmakers can survive all sorts of slings and arrows of misfortune, but when it comes to bad tidings, nothing stings quite as much as the news that the studio is putting your movie out on Labor Day weekend.
In an era when holiday weekends are jammed with splashy new releases that rocket off to box-office records, Labor Day has become the industry's dumping ground for the kinds of clunkers that would challenge the skills of the best used-car salesman.
Over the past 15 years, less than a handful of Labor Day weekend movies have made more than a paltry $20 million in their entire theatrical runs. Exhibitor Relations, the company that tracks box-office statistics, recently compiled the top 45 holiday weekends of all time: Labor Day made it on the list just once, with last year's tally ranking No. 44.
How bad have the offerings been?
In 1998, the weekend's top-grossing film was Knock Off, featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme as a fashion designer(!) who joins forces with a CIA agent (Rob Schneider) to combat terrorism. In 1999, the top film was Chill Factor, which had Cuba Gooding Jr. and Skeet Ulrich joining forces to stop a new biological weapon that's designed to explode if exposed to air chilled below 50 degrees. In 1997, you could choose between Kull the Conqueror, with Kevin Sorbo as a barbarian battling other barbarians to keep his throne, or Excess Baggage, which starred Alicia Silverstone (remember her?) as a spoiled rich girl who falls in love with a guy who steals her car.
"If you're a director and the studio puts your movie on Labor Day," says DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press, "you pretty much know what they think of your movie."
This year the pickings are as slim as ever. The only nationwide release is feardotcom, a horror picture that looks to be such a stinker that Warner Bros. wasn't screening the film before it opened.
But why is Labor Day the worst weekend? People still go to baseball games and rock concerts. Why not movies?
"It's a cultural thing," explains Revolution Studios partner Tom Sherak, who picks his studio's release dates. "It's the end of summer, and people are distracted. Kids are going back to school, parents have to go shopping for their kids, and everyone's mind-set is changing from a summer of leisure to a time of hitting the books again. Once that happens, events like movies lose their urgency, they take a back seat to other things."
It hardly puts you in a receptive mood for a movie, does it? But what would happen if someone put Star Wars on Labor Day - would people still stay away?
"Of course it would be an event. It would do lots of business," says Sherak. "But if you're not sure, why take the chance?"
Whatever the reason, expectations are low. David M. Evans, who directed First Kid, a 1996 comedy that was one of the better-grossing Labor Day weekend films, says he didn't realize his film was coming out on such a slow weekend "until I got a call over the weekend from a studio marketing executive who told me, 'You should be ecstatic. We did a whole lot better than we thought we would.' "
Industry veterans say teen-agers are the only reliable audience who'll show up on Labor Day, which is why most releases then are teen comedies or horror films, the two most popular teen genres. In the 1990s, horror films were standbys, with such entries as Child's Play 3, The Crow: City of Angels, The Prophecy, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation and Highlander: Endgame.
Last year, MGM had the biggest Labor Day hit ever with Jeepers Creepers, a teens-in-jeopardy horror film that took in $15 million in its opening weekend and ended up earning nearly $38 million, both Labor Day records. Former MGM distribution chief Larry Gleason, who picked the film's release date, says, "If you have a picture that primarily appeals to teens, then Labor Day is the right place to take a shot. We needed an easy opening weekend without any real competition to really launch the picture."
After MGM's surprise success, you'd think Labor Day might look slightly more enticing. But for all of the industry's devotion to market research, when it comes to selecting opening weekends for movies, Hollywood is a surprisingly superstitious place. If a movie does well on a particular date, it usually encourages the studio to release a similar movie on the same date.
The same thinking applies for dates where films have failed. According to conventional wisdom, the first week of December was a dead zone. In fact, until the 1970s, business was so slow that many theaters were closed the first two weeks of December. The end of the year is a popular time for female-oriented Oscar pictures, but studio marketers say that in early December, most women are out doing Christmas shopping. So studios target big family movies for Thanksgiving and Oscar-oriented films for Christmas.
For years, there wasn't a major studio release during the first week of December. Then last year, desperate to get the jump on all the other war movies, 20th Century Fox rushed out Behind Enemy Lines at the beginning of December. The movie was a modest hit, bringing in $60 million. This year Warners has picked Dec. 6 to release Analyze That, a big-budget sequel to Analyze This that stars Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal.
The first weekend in October also was considered a box-office wasteland. But in 2000, Universal used the date to launch Meet the Parents, which went on to be one of the year's biggest hits. Now early October is prime time: Universal has cornered the date for Red Dragon, the latest installment in the Hannibal Lecter saga.
In 1999, Disney put out M. Night Shyamalan's thriller The Sixth Sense in the first weekend of August. It was a mega-hit. But Shyamalan's next film, Unbreakable, came out at Thanksgiving and was a box-office disappointment. So this year Disney and Shyamalan went back to the beginning of August for Signs, which is on track to be another blockbuster.
It's hard to imagine any of this preoccupation with release dates registering with moviegoers. They're simply looking for good movies to see. But this fondness for good-luck charms speaks volumes about the fragile Hollywood psyche.
Patrick Goldstein writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.