No, Christmas Isn't the New Summer Movie Season

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- Hey, so Hunger Games: Catching Fire made about $300 million in two weeks. The holidays are the new summer for movies, amirite?

No. Nowhere close.

While the folks at Lions Gate ( LGF) are likely very happy with that take -- as Disney ( DIS) is with the nearly $400 million that Thor: The Dark World and Frozen have made so far -- the concept of the holiday blockbuster is nearly three decades old and hasn't shifted the balance in the slightest. It all comes down to vacation days and opportunity: Summer has way more of both.

For some perspective, let's jump back to 1984 and a couple of the movie blockbuster's masters: Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. Before the Bad Boys films, before Crimson Tide and before Top Gun, the pair of producers used a combination of big-budget production and bombastic backing music to make a star out of Jennifer Beals and to make a piece of Hollywood iconography out of 1983's Flashdance. A year later, with comedian Eddie Murphy taking on a role abandoned by both Mickey Rourke and Sylvester Stallone, Simpson and Bruckheimer transformed Beverly Hills Cop from a niche action film (see Stallone's Cobra) to an '80s pop culture cornerstone that made $235 million during the holiday season alone.

That's a mark R-rated films wouldn't reach again until The Matrix: Reloaded in 2003. Adjusted for inflation, that's a $551 million smash and the third-highest-grossing R-rated film of all time behind The Exorcist and The Godfather.

Yet that movie was roughly 31% of a $764 million holiday movie season. By comparison, the 1984 summer season nearly doubled that take to $1.49 billion though its biggest film, Ghostbusters only brought in $229 million (or 15.4%) of the overall summer box office. There were only about 60 days in the holiday movie season compared to 122 for summer and only 35 films released compared to 51 in the summer of '84.

In some areas, that divide has only widened as years have passed. Sony's ( SNE) James Bond installment Skyfall made more than $304 million last holiday season and led a slate of 94 holiday movies to a $2.6 billion take and a 23% increase over the 2011 holiday season. Still, that lagged well behind Disney's $624 million summer behemoth The Avengers and last summer's $4.3 billion season -- when a season-record 222 films hit U.S. screens.

If that makes it look like the gap is narrowing, keep in mind that only a year before summer films out-earned their winter counterparts $4.3 billion to $2.1 billion. The summer box office can double up on its smaller winter sibling almost at will. However, as Beverly Hills Cop proved, winter blockbusters can still win out for best box-office draw overall.

Since 1984, 10 holiday-released films -- Beverly Hills Cop, Rain Man, Home Alone, Aladdin, Toy Story, Titanic, The Grinch, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Lord of the Rings: Return Of The King and Avatar -- went on to become the biggest films of the year. Two of them -- Titanic at $659 million and Avatar at $760.5 million -- rank as the top-grossing U.S. films of all time. Even adjusted for inflation, Titanic still cracks the Top 5 with a $1.1 billion take.

While one great winter film may not be enough to declare a new blockbuster season, it does help balance the movie mix a bit. Since 2000, the industry's box office revenue has risen every time a winter movie has been the top earner. In fact, only The Grinch in 2000 failed to help increase movie ticket sales from one year to the next. The first Harry Potter installment in 2001 helped boost ticket sales 4.7% from the year before, while Avatar fueled a 5.3% jump in ticket sales in 2009 -- which was the last time Hollywood got U.S. moviegoers to buy more than 1.4 billion tickets to its films.

Get enough kids out of school and enough discretionary vacation cash floating around, and just about any season can become a blockbuster season for the movie industry. Hollywood's been capitalizing on that lucrative wintry mix for a while now, and its strategy is about as new as an '80s buddy cop film or Glenn Frey's The Heat Is On.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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