Each year between the busy summer and holiday film seasons, the motion picture industry enters a lull in which Oscar hopefuls get a chance to build momentum while seasonal blockbusters attempt to stay in theaters until the kids get a day off from school. In 2013 alone, according to BoxOfficeMojo, U.S. box office earnings dropped from $4.85 billion from Memorial Day through Labor Day to just $1.14 billion from early September to just before Thanksgiving. Last year's top earner, Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity became the highest-grossing fall film in U.S. history by bringing in $274 million for Warner Brothers (TWX) after its Oct. 4 release. Last year's Best Picture winner, Fox Searchlight's 12 Years A Slave took in only $57 million in the U.S., but stayed in theaters for months after its Oct. 18 debut.
There are few safe bets as studios enter the waning days of their release calendar. Lions Gate has followed the template set by its 2012 acquisition Summit Entertainment and held the releases its Twilight and Hunger Games series of young-adult book adaptations until Thanksgiving weekend. This year's latest Hunger Games installment, Mockingjay -- Part I, hits theaters on Nov. 21 and follows last year's Catching Fire. That film made $425 million in the U.S. alone and was the top-grossing film in the country for all of 2013. Warner Brothers, meanwhile, has staked its claim to mid-December and planted its Hobbit series right in the middle of the holiday season. Last year's Desolation of Smaug brought in more than $258 million at the U.S. box office after a Dec. 13 release, while this year's Battle Of The Five Armies seeks a repeat performance on Dec. 17.
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Those two franchises are as close to sure things as the industry has right now. Since 2012, the Hunger Games films have produced nearly $833 million in North America while taking in $1.5 billion worldwide. The Hobbit series, meanwhile, has grossed more than $560 million in the U.S. on its way to nearly $2 billion around the globe.
With the exception of Disney and Marvel's Thor: The Dark World, which made $206 million in the U.S. last year after hitting theaters on Nov. 8, the superheroes generally take the fall and winter off while yielding to awards fodder, animated fare and the occasional Bond film. That pattern is only going to repeat in 2014 as 20th Century Fox throws a whole lot of marketing power behind the Oct. 3 release of the David Fincher-directed literary adaptation of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which has had trailers appearing online and in theaters since April. Fox is doubling down by stacking its October slate with its Dia De Los Muertos-themed animated release The Book Of Life and the highly anticipated Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu-directed Birdman -- staring former Batman star Michael Keaton as an actor who can't shake his old Superhero role -- both releasing on Oct. 17.
As was the case for much of 2014, however, the studio with the greatest potential to spring something big on the U.S. moviegoing public this year is Disney. Already home to three of the five top-grossing films of 2014 -- Guardians Of The Galaxy ($296 million in the U.S.), Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($260 million) and Maleficent ($239 million) -- Disney has been too tough to count out during the colder months. Last year's Frozen topped $400 million and rode its soundtrack and a sing-along version to a nearly nine-month box office run. It completely outclassed Pixar's Monsters University ($268 million) and came just shy of outshining its superhero stablemate Iron Man 3 ($409 million). A year earlier, Disney coaxed an unexpected $189 million performance out of the animated video-game feature Wreck-It Ralph that held its own against Pixar's summer release Brave ($237 million).
This year, Disney is dumping a whole bunch of releases with serious potential onto the fall schedule. Its adaptation of the children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day starring Steve Carell hits theaters on Oct. 10, followed by its animated adaptation of the somewhat obscure Marvel comic title Big Hero 6 on Nov. 7 and its big-budget ensemble take on the Stephen Sondheim fairy-tale musical Into The Woods (featuring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp and Anna Kendrick) on Christmas Day.
Though other studios seemed better positioned to win fall itself, just consider that Frozen, Thor and Saving Mr. Banks ($83 million) all made last year's holiday Top 10 and contributed to a $2.7 billion holiday season at the U.S. box office that was second only to the Avatar-driven $2.9 billion produced in late 2009.
There are moviegoers to be wooed during the cooler months, and the competition only heats up as the slow season passes.
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-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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