As surely every sentient being on planet earth must know by know, this week marks the US opening (notice I didn’t say “premier”; more on that below) of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Quick quiz question: what day of the week is the opening day? I’m pretty sure most of us would guess “Friday” (that is, today), but it would probably be just that: a guess. After all, don’t most movies open on a Friday? The actual answer: it’s Thursday, April 30. Why Thursday? It’s a good question, but before we answer it, we might also ask, “why do so many movies open on Friday?” Has this always been the case? What can the release strategies of Hollywood movies tell us about the social role of cinema in the different screen ages of American movie history?
At first thought, the Friday release date strategy might seem obvious. Don’t most people go to the movies on the weekend? And don’t movie studios focus on opening weekend box office totals to determine whether a movie is a success or not? The answer is yes to both questions, with a couple of qualifications. First, there’s the definition of “weekend.” The idea and ideal of the five-day work week began at the beginning of the 20th century, right around the same time as the movies. Before then, there was no “weekend,” just Sunday off for the Sabbath. So Saturday and Sunday have only had their combined cultural meaning as the “weekend” for just about a century. But what about Friday? Is that the “weekend”? It’s certainly the end of the working week for many people, but it’s not a day off. Maybe we mean Friday night is the start of the weekend. Fair enough, but movies that open on Fridays don’t usually open on Friday night. They play all day on Friday, and for some tentpole pictures the first showing is often just after midnight on Thursday.
The idea of the 12:01 AM showing on Friday morning points to another logical issue with the Friday as the weekend argument. Even if weekend box office totals determine success and failure in Hollywood, what’s the harm in opening earlier in the week, letting people pay their money to see the film, and potentially allowing positive word of mouth to get around increasing the possibility for a big weekend? Which is exactly what a lot of studios do, more than you may think. Take a look at these opening day box office records for movies opening on . . . Wednesday! As you can see, there are the names of quite a few major tentpole movies over the last fifteen or so years on the list. Some of these Wednesday openings can be explained by the holidays, especially Thanksgiving, Christmas, and July 4, but others simply opened on Wednesday.
In fact, for decades Wednesday was the primary opening day for movies. In the pre-multiplex era, when theaters only showed a single double-bill at a time, Wednesday was movie-changing day. It was the mark of a really lucrative movie that it might be “held over” for another week. For blockbusters like Gone with the Wind, a single theater might show that movie—and no other—for a year or more. Even into the multiplex screen age and the rise of the franchise movie, Wednesday remained a popular opening day. Star Wars, for example, opened on May 25, 1977: a Wednesday (and definitely a school night. My friends and I drove into Hollywood to see it that night and were talking about in school the next day). The opening of Star Wars positioned it to take advantage of the upcoming Memorial Day weekend (another example of how a holiday can expand the concept of the weekend to Monday, the “weekstart”). But it still opened two days before that weekend would start. And played in many theaters for over a year.
So when we really think about it, the Friday opening date is really just as arbitrary as opening a movie on, say, Monday, which happens to be the day of the week that Avengers: Age of Ultron “premiered” in the US at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on April 13. And US premier is the optimal qualifier here; the movie has already been playing internationally for about two weeks, allowing for website headlines proclaiming that “Avengers Continues to Set Records” even as it just begins to open in the US. And really, what difference does it make what day of the week—or even what specific date—the Avengers movie opens? If ever there was a sure fire hit, this is it. It’s guaranteed to generate massive revenues, regardless of its “opening weekend” totals in the US.
As you are probably realize, the whole machinery of the movie opening—the advance publicity; the post-midnight screenings—is trying to create a sense of false urgency, the marketing strategy aimed at convincing us that we have to see the movie right away before it’s too late. In the pre-digital screen ages, and definitely in the pre-multiplex screen ages, this false urgency had some basis in true urgency. “Last days!” a movie marquee might proclaim on the weekend before movie-change Wednesday, or “Ends Tuesday!” Once a movie left the theaters up through the age of video rentals in the 1980s, it could very be the last chance to see it for quite a while, or at least until it turned up on television. Today, with so many viewing and distribution options available, there’s really no rational need to worry that we won’t get to see Avengers: Age of Ultron, or even Welcome to Me, Shira Piven’s absurdist indie comedy starring Kristen Wiig and made for a fraction of the Avengers budget, which is also opening today. Regardless of when either finally leaves the movie theaters, we will have many other opportunities to see them.
In a way, though, it may be that very accessibility of screen experiences, the actual lack of urgency to see any new movie, that explains the overheated hype to turn the opening of Avengers into not just an opportunity to see a story about a bunch of superheroes but to experience a kind of cultural “event.” I would also argue that this marketing avalanche is a part of our overall screen experience of Avengers: Age of Ultron, affecting our emotional experience of the movie itself, both raising our expectations but also turning our experience into a kind of a homework assignment, feeding our desire not to be the only person left out of the event and forever susceptible to “spoilers.” From this perspective, the actual day of the week matters less than how we can turn that day—any day, really—into the most important day in movie history. At least until Jurassic World opens on Friday, June 12.