Why Is Labor Day Such a Terrible Weekend for Movies?

Guardians Easily Tops Weak Labor Day Releases” goes the headline over at Box Office Mojo, which is a bit redundant if you’re the kind of movie geek who gets weirdly hung up on release dates — as your film editor is — since it’s hard to remember a Labor Day that wasn’t filled with “weak” releases. It’s one of the true oddities of the business of summer movies; every year, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July (OK, maybe not the Fourth this year, but usually!) are staked out months, maybe years in advance for high-profile blockbuster hopefuls, and the starter pistol for the summer season comes earlier each year (Captain America: The Winter Soldier opened in April; Batman v Superman recently shuffled its opening date to March). So why, year after year, does the summer go out with a whimper instead of a bang? And with so much hand-wringing over the steep dip in revenues this season, shouldn’t the studios be looking to expand their weirdly collapsed summer?

Late August and early September are an odd time at the movies anyway — they’re where studios tend to slide in the would-be summer blockbusters and fall prestige movies that they don’t exactly have full confidence in. That’s certainly been the case this year; previous weeks offered up only the warmed-over likes of The Giver, The Expendables 3, Let’s Be Cops, If I Stay, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, while this week will only see one (one) new wide release, The Identical, which is — I’m not making this up — some kind of unauthorized Elvis Presley fan fiction (and yet another play for the dollars of “faith-based” audiences). Your big Labor Day releases were former James Bond Pierce Brosnan’s pale James Bond imitation The November Man and the critically drubbed found-footage horror movie As Above/So Below. With a slate like this, it’s little wonder Guardians of the Galaxy keeps topping the charts; sure, it’s a likable picture with high re-watch value, but there’s also nothing else worth seeing (at least at the multiplex).

Still from "As Above/So Below"
Play the “As Above/So Below” drinking game by taking a shot every time characters hear something mysterious off-screen.

Has it always been so? Kind of. Box Office Mojo’s rundown of Labor Day openers places this year’s entrants far down the list — and it doesn’t take inflation into account. But it also shows surprisingly few genuine Labor Day hits, and they’re tracking this stuff back to 1982 (when the weekend was won by An Officer and a Gentlemen, then in its sixth week of release). Yet it’s still an instructive chart. The biggest Labor Day release to date was Rob Zombie’s 2007 Halloween remake — a date that seemed silly at the time (coming, as it did, two months before the holiday that’s right there in the title), but a film that took advantage of the barren wasteland of the holiday to make $30 million — more than half of its total gross. Another horror movie, 2012’s The Possession, comes in second with $20 million; the Jeepers Creepers movies also show up in the top ten, which would seem to indicate that it’s not a bad time to put out your critic-proof genre movies. (As Above/So Below’s grosses would seem to contradict that point, though one could counter-argue that As Above/So Below is reportedly just terrible.)

Also of note in the top 20: The Constant Gardener, The American, Lawless, and The Debt. None of them were exactly commercial barnburners (The American’s $16 million gross was highest), but those are pretty respectable opening weekends for what are, essentially, fall movies — reasonably intelligent movies for grownup audiences, albeit ones in the genre dressing of political thriller or period action. The $10-$16 million each of them grossed was probably no less than they’d have done in an October or November slot; they might’ve even done better on Labor Day, due to lack of competition. So there’s another potential angle: look at Labor Day as the first weekend of Good Movie Season, and get your Oscar bait out in front of an audience starving for smart flicks after a summer of explosions. (Again, presumably The November Man could fall into this formulation; see previous comment about the quality of said film.)

Pierce Brosnan in "The November Man"
According to the Background Explosion Act of 2006, film characters are forbidden by law to look back at explosions behind them.

But what I propose is something more radical than that. Studios seemingly steer clear of Labor Day weekend for the same reason most people do things that don’t make any damn sense: because that’s the way it’s always been done. The best guess is that it’s rooted in some long-ago thinking about how people want to be outside (shudder) on the kinda-sorta last weekend of summer, that they’re not going to the movies because they’re going to “the beach house” or “the lake” or “the Hamptons” or whatever. But that’s dopey. Labor Day weekend is a three-day weekend in summer, and people go to the movies; they went to see Guardians again in its fifth weekend. Now, can you imagine if something like Guardians were opening on Labor Day?

Granted, it might look (at first) like a vote of no confidence. But if Hollywood is really worried about losing revenue in the summer, its most lucrative season, it has to stop limiting the summer to a weird block from early May to late July. Guardians was already bucking the trend a bit with its August opening — that’s later than the summer’s big go-getters usually roll out. But by placing a genuinely enjoyable popcorn movie in an empty block, Marvel ended up with the biggest-grossing movie of the year.

Look, it doesn’t make a bit of difference to you, me, and the rest of the casual moviegoers if the studios took a hit this summer (except from the standpoint that it’s going to make them less likely to take risks, which means even more sequels and remakes and reboots). But one thing I’m in favor of is a wide range of options all year, not just on a handful of overcrowded weekends. And based on the miserable summer box office, they should maybe start thinking the same way.