By Hammad Zaidi | December 14, 2010

One thing you may have noticed this holiday season is there is no flurry of Christmas based feature films at the box office. No timeless gems like Miracle on 34th Street (1947) or A Christmas Story (1983) are “dashing through the snow” to a theater near you, and there’s not even a sure-fire crowd pleaser like The Santa Clause (1994), even attempting to earn your box office dollars. If you’re wondering why the film studios aren’t in the Christmas spirit this year, it’s because they have become aware of the fact that Christmas films and other year-end holiday films are hindered at the box office because of two factors:

1) Unlike a hit summer film that can rake in millions through the summer and into the fall, Christmas films only have from Thanksgiving weekend through Christmas Day to be relevant at the box office. Once the New Year rings in, Christmas Films feel as about as current as last year’s fashions.

2) A Christmas season release will have an early summer/mid summer DVD release, and nobody is in the mood to buy a Christmas film in June or July. Thus DVD sales are hindered, just by the nature of the films.

Thus, we may have to cherish the fact that TNT plays A Christmas Story for 24 hours straight every Christmas Eve, (which I watch at least twice every year) because it’s unlikely that we’ll be treated with such gems in the foreseeable future.

In light of Christmas films falling out of favor with Hollywood’s year-end release strategies, I thought it’d be a good time to introduce you to The Calendar Game.

This never-ending, year-round game, which dictates what time of year a film should be released, is played to perfection by the major studios.  It’s high time for independent filmmakers to learn the rules and start playing the game themselves. Thus, without further ado, here are some insights into The Calendar Game, to help you maximize the box office of your indie film.

The Good Months To Release Independent Films
January, February, March, September and October are the very best times of year to release independent films, because there is very little studio-based competition the box office. Studios spend less on advertising on the films they do release during these months, which opens the door for independent films to get noticed. However, each release month comes with a set of challenges, so here are some things to think about:

January & February

The Upside:
Savvy indie filmgoers will be in an indie film mood, since Sundance is in January and The Berlin Film Festival is in February. Most savvy indie filmgoers are located in the America’s largest cities, i.e. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, as well as the art Mecca that is San Francisco. Thus, if you’re bowing your film in January or February, you may want to start you’re your release in the cities listed above.

The Downside:
Inclement weather may kill the box office for your film, for no other reason that it was too damn cold for your potential audience to bare the elements to get to the movie theater. Furthermore, if you think your film is Oscar-worthy then these two months may not be the right time for your release, because most Academy Award voters will forget about a film released this early in the year. The Oscar Buzz the current year’s nominated films my also damage your box office, because your potential viewing audience may want to spend their entertainment dollars on catching the Oscar nominated films.


The Upside:
The Oscar buzz is over, and the country enjoys better weather. Thus, indie films may have a healthier shot are garnering more attention, if they are released in the early part of the month.

The Downside:
Since some tent pole “summer films” have started to roll–out in April in order to get a jump on their competition, the life of an independent film release in March may be abruptly shortened.

September & October

The Upside:
September is the absolute best time of the year to release an independent film, for the following two key reasons:

1) The summer studio tent pole releases have run their course.

2) The release of studio “Oscar hopefuls” is two months away.

Thus, September indie releases have a healthy amount of time to try to garner box office success. Generally good weather also helps, and those who vote for the Academy Awards will remember critically and financially successful independent films released in September.

October is a great month to release genre-driven independent films like thrillers, suspense films and horror releases, because audiences are conditioned to expect such releases due to the nationwide hoopla around Halloween.

The Downside:
There’s not much downside to releasing your independent film in September and October. This is primarily because:

1) September releases give indie films enough time needed to grow “legs” and build an audience.

2) The independent genre films released in October won’t be adversely affected by the rash of Oscar hopeful studio dramas released in November, because the audience for genre films skews young, while the audience for studio dramas skews old.

The Worst Months To Release An Independent Film
May, June, July, August, November, December and April are the months to stay away from, because they are “owned” by the major studios. These seven months are when studios make most of their money, so they don’t play nice with anyone trying to take their candy away from them. Expect studios to dominate tens of thousands of theatrical screens nationwide, as well as to bombard the country with advertising, promotions and publicity for their most expensive films. Thus, releasing an indie film during the above referenced months is a giant leap toward committing cinematic suicide.

Plan Your DVD Release Within Your Good Months
Major film studios usually always plan the DVD releases of their biggest films within the months they dominate the box office. For example, the DVD of a summer blockbuster usually gets released in time for the Christmas season, and the DVDs for studio films released during Christmas, usually get released during the summer. Simply put, it’s easier to advertize your goods while you have the attention of the masses.

Independent films would be wise to follow the same principles and should only release their DVDs in their good months.

Doing so will allow independent films to cast their widest net in the DVD sales market.

Be Aware Of Potential Social Fires During Your Release
This is the one element you can’t change, control or predict, but you can be aware of what’s going on around you. For example, if your film is about a rape/murder/kidnapping, then be sensitive to any recent stories in the news that cover a real life version of the same topic. Releasing a grim independent film while the nation is mourning for real people who suffered the same cruelty as your film depicts, will not bode well for you’re your film drumming up support at the box office. Although you can’t always delay your release date because of circumstances beyond your control, you can remain sensitive to how your film will be received, given what’s going on in society at the time of your release.

Constructing a well thought out release strategy for you independent film is no easy task, but then again, neither is making an independent film. One thing you can rely on is that if you follow the basic principles listed above, you will give your independent film its best opportunity to break out in the box office and turn into a timeless classic that TNT will play for 24 hours straight every Christmas Eve.

Thank you for lending me your eyes, and I’ll see you next Tuesday.

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  1. Bwakathaboom says:

    I wonder how much, if at all, this applies to digital distribution, considering that 90% of indie films will never see the inside of a movie theater and their DVDs will be sold online only.

    I’m a refugee from the videogame industry where they’ve played this for the longest time (big releases in December, no one buys in the summer, etc.) only to discover that a) it’s not always true, a great product will stand out regardless of time of year and B) none of that matters in digital distribution anyways.

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