It was once an air-conditioned oasis that drew lines of audiences eager for the roller-coaster ride of Indiana Jones, the shark bite of Jaws and the buzz of a lightsaber. But in a time where the mega-movie business is year-round, that special season of moviegoing – possibly the most essential big-screen, popcorn-eating experience – no longer means the same thing.
The summer blockbuster didn’t wilt away. It grew too big to content itself with just May through August. Studios have in recent years begun spreading out their spectacles through the year. Like a King Kong that broke its chains, the summer movie now charges down every avenue. There’s a Godzilla at every junction.
This year has already seen one US$1 billion (HK$7.8 billion) movie (Beauty and the Beast) and Fate of the Furious isn’t far behind. Others await the cool, more ‘serious’ breezes of autumn, including Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League and Blade Runner 2049. Even Star Wars has fled summer and taken up residence in December.
Notwithstanding some very anticipated movies, that’s left a summer movie season without the same sunny glow it once had.
“What’s missing this summer is something out of left field that blows people away,” said Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “We haven’t had that for a few summers, to be honest – that true blockbuster that comes out of nowhere. What we get is pretty known commodities and huge franchises.”
For many of the summer’s biggest movies – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Alien: Covenant, the fifth instalments of the Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers franchises, Wonder Woman, Cars 3, Despicable Me 3, Spider-Man: Homecoming – the main objective will be to satisfy fans of the franchises.
Others are hoping for something fresher.
Edgar Wright, the British writer and director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, is a battle-scarred veteran of that machine, having spent years writing and developing Marvel’s Ant-Man before departing it over creative differences. This summer, he returns with Baby Driver, his “musical car chase movie” about a fresh-faced getaway driver who obsessively soundtracks his high-speed chases.
“It ended up being very fortuitous to come out of a heartbreaking experience and jump straight into something I had already written and I really wanted to do and was my dream movie,” said Wright. “Maybe the day after I left the other movie, literally one of the first emails I got from [production company] Working Title just said ‘Baby Driver next?’”
Following its enthusiastic reception, Baby Driver was pushed by Sony Pictures from August into the heart of the summer. “It won’t be like anything else that’s out in the cinema at that time,” said Wright. “It’s up against the behemoths like Transformers, Despicable Me and Spider-Man, but it’s not like any of those movies.”
Others are trying to reorient the summer movie. Christopher Nolan, who enjoys a strong position in Hollywood given his successes, will trot out his World War II tale Dunkirk, about the British evacuation in France. Largely shot with IMAX cameras, Dunkirk is the kind of grand historical epic that rarely appears in summer, let alone any other time of year.
NO SPOILERS: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 marches to its own 70s beat and packs plenty of laughs and action [Review]
Some films find reinvention by shifting perspectives. Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, adapted from the 1966 Civil War novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, takes a more female view of the story of a Union soldier who takes shelter in a Confederate girls’ boarding school than the 1971 version starring Clint Eastwood. Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick is a funny and tender rom-com, only told with more realism than usual and a less familiar cultural context. Nanjiani plays a Pakistani-American stand-up trying to evade an arranged marriage, and is inspired by Nanjiani’s meeting of his wife and collaborator, Emily Gordon.
New players are also shaking up the summer. Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, about the city’s 1967 riots, will be the first summer film distributed by Megan Ellison’s acclaimed Annapurna Pictures. That, too, is untraditional summer programming, but Bigelow has made a career out of turning complex subjects into heart-pounding cinema. The timing, Bigelow said, has less to do with the summer season than the 50th anniversary of the unrest.
But the most significant new entrant to the season is Netflix, which will be rolling out its most ambitious efforts yet. Bong Joon Ho’s sci-fi fantasy Okja, with Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, arrives summer time. And with David Michod’s Afghanistan war satire War Machine, starring Brad Pitt as a fictionalised General Stanley McChrystal, the streaming service will take a significant step up in scale and star power.
“This is a Netflix film and there’s something about that that really excites me,” said Michod. “Maybe this isn’t the kind of movie the studios would put into a wide release at this time of year. There’s something about the Netflix revolution that makes me feel: Why not?”
It’s the kind of subject matter and style – a see-sawing, absurdist tone inspired by films like Catch-22 and M-A-S-H – that today’s studios likely wouldn’t touch. But Michod (Animal Kingdom, The Rover) said the world and the summer movie season “could use more wild and unusual movies.”
“We needed freedom and we needed to be working with people who embraced the risk of the venture,” said the Australian director. “And all of that has certainly proved to be true with our experience with Netflix. Something about making films for traditional, arguably safe theatrical roll-outs has steadily crushed risk-taking on a grand scale.”
So, no, the summer movie season isn’t the same. But in the shadow of superheroes, a new kind of summer movie – on screens big and small – might be growing.