You might call August the dog days of summer, or you might call it back-to-school season. In the movie business, there’s another name for August, though you’ll rarely hear it said aloud.
It’s called “dump month.”
Sandwiched between summer blockbuster season and gold-obsessed awards season, August can be something of a cinematic wasteland. It’s the slot where studios often put subpar movies with major stars (“Elysium,” with Matt Damon in 2013), junky-looking action-flicks like the Jason Statham 2008 vehicle “Death Race,” or kids’ movies too weak for height-of-summer competition (Disney’s “Planes,” from 2013). Generally speaking, savvy moviegoers regard August releases with justifiable skepticism.
“The big studios would never in a million years use this phrase, but they do view it as a dumping ground,” says Dade Hayes, co-author of “Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became a National Obsession.” By August, the summer’s biggest movies have already been released and younger viewers are beginning to turn their attentions to the coming school year, Hayes says. “August has just always been a lazy month.”
That said, there are exceptions that prove the rule. Savvy studios occasionally take advantage of August’s skimpy lineup to introduce offbeat or risky titles that might not have survived in a more crowded month. Examples include 1984’s hard-hitting teen flick “Red Dawn,” the cult comedy “Snakes on a Plane” in 2006 and the South African sci-fi allegory “District 9,” from 2009. August has also seen several bona fide blockbusters, notably last year’s DC comics adaptation “Suicide Squad,” a $745 million worldwide hit.
This August looks like yet another month of question marks. Two titles seem to be making early bids for Academy Award consideration: “The Glass Castle,” starring Woody Harrelson and Oscar-winner Brie Larson as members of a vagabond family, and “Tulip Fever,” starring Alicia Vikander (also an Oscar winner) as a 17th century Danish woman who has an affair. “Logan Lucky,” Steven Soderbergh’s latest heist comedy (starring Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig), has received encouraging early reviews, while the trailer for “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” a buddy comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, has earned some mild buzz.
“The storyline of August this year will be that a lot of July movies will keep doing really well, like ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Girls Trip,’ ” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com, referring to Christopher Nolan’s World War II film and Malcolm D. Lee’s raunchy comedy, respectively. “So even though there won’t be big openers, there should be plenty of July holdover that should do well until Labor Day.”
Trying to remember the last great movie you saw during August? Here are a few reminders:
PARENTHOOD (released Aug. 2, 1989) This loose collection of storylines about kids and parents is the rare example of an August release that was full of major stars and top-shelf filmmakers. Steve Martin was at his cinematic peak, his support cast was stellar (Keanu Reeves, Dianne Wiest), the director was Ron Howard and the screenwriters were Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (“Night Shift,” “Splash,” “Gung Ho”). Even against stiff competition from James Cameron’s “The Abyss” and Sean Penn’s “Casualties of War,” this family comedy became a $100 million hit.
UNFORGIVEN (Aug. 7, 1992) Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed Western seems like a typical September or October release, especially given its now-classic status and four Oscars — best picture, director, editing and supporting actor for Gene Hackman. “It comes down to simple quality and execution,” Hayes says of movies that succeed in August. “The ones that really pop, they’re quality films.”
BABE (Aug. 4, 1995) The summer of 1995 had gone well enough, with a few hits (“Apollo 13,” “Clueless”) and one infamous flop (Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld”). August seemed like the perfect month to release “Babe,” a talking-animal movie without a single A-list star (no disrespect to lead actor James Cromwell). Unexpectedly, “Babe” became a critical success, earned $254 million and landed seven Oscar nominations. It won for best visual effects, beating out “Apollo 13.”
THE SIXTH SENSE (Aug. 6, 1999) The breakout film from M. Night Shyamalan, starring Haley Joel Osment as a haunted little boy and Bruce Willis as a troubled psychologist, seemed to hit a sweet spot with its mix of old-fashioned suspense, supernatural horror and a twist ending for the ages. “The Sixth Sense” had such staying power that distributor Buena Vista pushed it onto hundreds of additional screens six months later, in February of 2000, and didn’t pull it from theaters until May — an impressive 39-week run.
THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN (Aug. 19, 2005) When this comedy first hit screens, none of us knew we were witnessing the birth of a genre: The Judd Apatow Movie. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” marked Apatow’s directorial debut, made a movie star out of Steve Carell (the two of them co-wrote it) and further boosted the careers of Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks. It earned $177 million worldwide.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Aug. 8, 2014) Disney-Marvel had already expanded the boundaries of summer by laying claim to the first weekend in May (beginning with 2008’s “Iron Man”), so perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised when the studio released “Guardians” in August. It certainly worked: The movie put a fresh spin on the superhero genre with its sassy tone and oddball characters (exemplified by the treelike Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel). “Guardians” holds the second-highest August opening on record, with $94 million, behind the $133 million of “Suicide Squad.”
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (Aug. 14, 2015) Rap fans eagerly awaited this biopic about the pioneering group N.W.A., but it wasn’t initially clear whether a wider audience would turn out to see it. The themes of racial tension and police harassment wound up striking a chord — as did the still-electrifying soundtrack — and the movie ended up earning $201 million worldwide, plus an Oscar nod for best original screenplay. “ ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is a great example of something that in hindsight seems like it would be a big hit, but it was anything but a given,” says Hayes. “Movie magic had to happen, and it did.”
Top 10 opening weekends in August
1. SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) $133.6 million
2. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014) $94.3
3. THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007) $69.2
4. RUSH HOUR 2 (2001) $67.4
5. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2014) $65.5
6. STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015) $60.2
7. SIGNS (2002) $60.1
8. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011) $54.8
9. G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA (2009) $54.7
10. RUSH HOUR 3 (2007) $49.1