August traditionally has been considered a dumping ground for movies, a time when schlocky little genre pictures would sneak into theaters for a couple of weeks before vacations wrapped up, kids went back to school and reality once again took hold.
But that's all changing. This past month, for instance, you had a well-received comedy hit in "The Other Guys," small, tense thrillers like "The Disappearance of Alice Creed" and "Animal Kingdom," and an intelligent documentary in "The Tillman Story." Even the horror movies "Piranha 3D" and "The Last Exorcism" are stronger than the usual late-season fare.
Last August brought us Quentin Tarantino's Nazi-killing epic "Inglourious Basterds," which was nominated for eight Academy Awards (it won for supporting-actor Christoph Waltz), and "District 9," about an alien invasion in South Africa, which received four nominations. Both were up for best picture. Previous Augusts have featured "Tropic Thunder" (2008), "Superbad" (2007) and "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" (2006), all hits at the box office and with critics.
"Times have changed. People go to movies 365 days out of the year," said Eli Roth, who produced "The Last Exorcism" and has a cameo in "Piranha 3D." "You can track slower days of the year but the No. 1 movie still made $25 or $30 million."
One reason is sheer quantity: There are so many movies flooding theaters every year, there's never going to be a period that's completely wretched. Roth recalled that when his first feature, "Cabin Fever," came out in September 2003, he was told the low-budget horror film would have a month to prove it could perform.
"Now it's like, you have a week, and if you don't work that first week, it's over," he said. "There's always another movie on the chopping block."
August can help horror and sci-fi
But mid-to-late August can be a more welcoming time to open a movie — especially in the horror or sci-fi genres — because there's a different kind of competition.
"You still have a weekend seven days a week, the college kids are still out, kids want that last gasp of summer before they go back to school," said Roth.
"Horror movies, by August, you kind of miss them. The last one was in April. You can feel it when 'Halloween' opens with $30 million — the remake — or 'Final Destination 3D' opens to huge box office. ... We thought it was the perfect time (to release 'The Last Exorcism'). Everyone's seen the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, they've seen the Angelina Jolie movie and they've seen the Robert Downey Jr. movie."
But August is still sort of a dumping ground "in the sense of the quantity of the movies, but not necessarily the quality of the movies like it used to be," said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com. Last weekend, for example, 13 new movies came out, with the ensemble action flick "The Expendables" holding the No. 1 spot for the second-straight week. "Piranha 3D" debuted in sixth place, only making $10.1 million. But it got an overwhelmingly strong critical reception, earning 81 percent positive reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes website, and Dimension Films has already announced a sequel.
"August has become a transitional month, the month that bridges the gap between the summer blockbusters and the fall Oscar season, and often the kind of films you find are kind of a hybrid. They don't fit into any exact category," Dergarabedian said. "'Inglourious Basterds' was weird because it was sort of an action movie but it wound up being nominated for best picture. That's a summer movie, when you don't usually see Oscar nominees coming out."
Having said that, "things are toning down, things are calming down as we shift into fall," he added. "You're never going to see 'Iron Man 3' in August. Audiences are in a different mood, they're looking for something different. ... August has also become a land of opportunity for films that would otherwise get beat up pretty bad in the heat of the summer. 'The Expendables' couldn't compete against 'Iron Man,' but in August, 'The Expendables' IS 'Iron Man.' It's the big guy on the block."
August — and summer in general — are also good for art-house films which serve as counter-programming to the blockbusters. "The Tillman Story," about the friendly-fire killing in Afghanistan of former NFL star Pat Tillman, opened in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles to a strong per-screen average of $13,046, and will expand to more cities in upcoming weeks.
"It used to be you couldn't find art films in the summer," said Bill Banowsky, co-founder of the indie distributor Magnolia Pictures. "Then people started releasing films in the summer like 'I Am Love' this summer, which was a big art film hit (for Magnolia)."
But Banowsky, who runs the Carolina Cinemas chain, also looks at August from a theater owner's perspective: "We very much are at the mercy of the studio release schedule, and the decisions being made in Hollywood are the ones that are making or not making late August and early September better than what they historically have been.
"I don't think the numbers necessarily suggest that there is a significant increase in attendance in August," he said. "Films like 'The Tillman Story,' there are great films to be released in this window, but they're not going to move the needle in terms of overall box office."
Still, they exist during this traditionally down time, which is a good thing for film lovers: "When Quentin Tarantino is opening his masterpiece in August," Roth said of "Inglourious Basterds," in which he played a supporting role. "you know you're in good company."