Why hasn’t someone planted a flag on the May 13th weekend? Ok, yes, Roadside Attractions has FAMILY CAMP opening that weekend. And Universal has FIRESTARTER on the 13th, but that one is getting a day-and-date release on Peacock. There are no major-studio, theatrical-only releases scheduled for Mother’s Day weekend.
This speaks to two pandemic distribution trends. First, the wide margins studios have been giving superhero movies (more on that below), and second, and far more troubling, the abandonment of female-skewing holidays.
Earlier this year, we talked about how Hollywood has seemingly abandoned Valentine’s Day. Now it looks like the same thing may be happening to Mother’s Day, which, over the years, has yielded some big hits. BRIDESMAIDS was a runaway smash in 2011, THE GREAT GATSBY opened to $50M in 2013, and though it doesn’t seem like a Mother’s Day film, NEIGHBORS opened to $49M a year later.
Since 2014, however, attempts to attract a female audience on that weekend have fallen flat. Here are a few examples that didn’t quite connect at the box office.
It doesn’t help that none of them had Rotten Tomatoes scores above 40. Given that it’s been several years since Mother’s Day yielded a breakthrough hit, it’s not hard to blame the studios for giving up. But then again, it could be that the studios haven’t offered anything worth seeing.
Before getting into that, let’s hit pause and explain the significance of early May at the box office.
Back on May 3rd, 2002, the original SPIDER-MAN – the one that introduced Tobey Maguire in the lead role – debuted to $155M. It was the only film of 2002 to open above $100M, and it ended up being the highest grossing film of the year.
It also made the first weekend of May one of the most coveted release dates of the year. For some inexplicable reason, we collectively as an industry proclaimed May 1st as the start of the summer box office season. Never mind that it was still technically spring or that schools were still in session, in the land of Hollywood, summer began in May.
Granted, early May came into its own as a box office hot zone a few years earlier when THE MUMMY debuted to $43M on May 7th, 1999. Still, SPIDER-MAN turned this weekend into prime real estate for superheroes, specifically Marvel superheroes.
Things went a bit sideways in 2018 and 2019 when Disney moved AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and AVENGERS: END GAME up a week to the end of April. And, of course, the entire release schedule got disrupted in 2020 and 2021 from the pandemic. But, with DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS opening on May 6th, we’re thrilled to see that one tradition of old is returning.
It turns out that Mother’s Day being the second weekend in May happens to fall right after one of the biggest box office weekends of the year. So any new film would be going up against the second weekend of a box office behemoth. That didn’t necessarily scare the studios in pre-pandemic times. Case in point, THE GREAT GATSBY, which opened the week after IRON MAN 3 debuted to $173M.
With a $50M debut, GATSBY still came in behind the $72M earned by IRON MAN 3 in its 2nd frame, but there was a belief that there were enough box office dollars to go around for everybody. There could be multiple winners. And, in fact, there were. GATSBY was a huge hit.
The pandemic changed that. Superhero tentpoles have had the marketplace to themselves. Last September, SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS had its opening all alone. No surprise there. But in its second weekend, its only competition was MALIGNANT, a genre film that opened simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. A week later, it went up against CRY MACHO, another hybrid release. It wasn’t until its fourth week in theaters that it had a theatrical-only wide release as competition in DEAR EVAN HANSEN.
Fast forward to March of this year when THE BATMAN hit theaters. In this case, not only did the film debut by itself, but the other studios avoided putting anything on the schedule the week before (!) as well as the week after. It was wrapped in a competition-free bubble on all sides. Like SHANG-CHI, BATMAN didn’t have any major studio competition until THE LOST CITY came along in its fourth week of release.
And now, with DOCTOR STRANGE, it’s happening again. With its plum May 6th release date, STRANGE is, as expected, opening by itself. But, where we normally get a female-skewing title the weekend after, this year on Mother’s Day, its only competition in week two comes from Universal’s FIRESTARTER, which, as noted above, is also getting a day-and-date release on Peacock.
Thankfully, this trend seems to be coming to an end after DOCTOR STRANGE. Disney has scheduled LIGHTYEAR to open a week after JURASSIC WORLD: DOMINION in June, and a month later, Sony has put WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING right behind THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER.
But the studios avoiding female-skewing holidays doesn’t appear to be ending. However, it’s important to remember that it’s
the weekends that no one wants that present the best opportunity for reinvention. Think of how IT reframed early September as prime real estate for horror films in 2017. Or how GRAVITY reinvented the first week of October in 2013, paving the way for THE MARTIAN, VENOM, and JOKER.
It may be too late for this year, but with another 13 months before Mother’s Day comes around again, perhaps some brave distribution executive will make a case for revitalizing Mother’s Day. Will someone think outside the box? Let’s hope so.