The stakes are always high in the summer movie season.
But even in a schedule that has heavyweights like Indiana Jones, Ariel, Ethan Hunt and Dominic Toretto vying for box office supremacy, the biggest, funniest showdown is happening on July 21. On that fateful Friday, cinephiles will be faced with a difficult choice: Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” or Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie”?
The “Barbieheimer” showdown is, naturally, a bit silly. First, it’s entirely possible to see two new movies in one weekend. Second, while opening weekends are important, they’re also not everything.
In 2008, “The Dark Knight” debuted on the same weekend as “Mamma Mia!” and both went on to be major successes.
But it has inspired the kind of feverish, half-serious, half-joking discourse online that no marketing can buy, with memes, jokes, bets and Highlander references galore every time either film drops a new advertisement. There were even a few hours in April when the internet panicked that the beach-off was cancelled (it wasn’t). And before you go googling, the Highlander jokes are not about that film’s disastrous 1986 box office run, but instead the enduring “there can only be one” line.
The summer movie season always begins before actual summer. This year it kicks off on May 5 with the release of Disney and Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” and runs through Labour Day. Since “Jaws,” the summer season has been the most important for the moviemaking industry and typically accounts for around 40 per cent of a year’s domestic box office, according to data from Comscore. Pre-pandemic, that usually meant more than $4 billion in ticket sales. Last year hit $3.4 billion.
But the industry is feeling optimistic. Last summer, only 22 films released on over 2,000 screens. This year there are 42, the same as in 2019, spanning every genre. And, it seems, every studio has reprioritised theatrical releases over direct-to-streaming.
There are movies based on comic characters (“The Flash,” “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”), toys (“Transformers: Rise of the Beasts”), racing games (“Gran Turismo”) and theme park rides (“Haunted Mansion”); Action adventures (“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning”); Family friendly fare (“Elemental,” “Harold and the Purple Crayon”); Documentaries (“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” “Stephen Curry: Underrated”); And a starry Wes Anderson movie (“Asteroid City.”)
And it’s not just the superhero films getting wide releases and large format screens. Disney’s live-action “The Little Mermaid” will have a 3D IMAX version, a laser version and a Dolby one all available when it opens in theatres on May 26.
Director Rob Marshall was no stranger to technically ambitious movie musicals but “The Little Mermaid,” starring Halle Bailey as the teenage dreamer, put him to the test trying to stage a photorealistic underwater musical.
“As complicated as it as it was, my goal was never to let the technical part of it lead it,” said Marshall, who has been at work since 2018. “I really wanted to make sure that the story and the characters led it.”
Even in the throes of the pandemic, Marshall was confident that “The Little Mermaid” was too big to end up as a streaming offering.
“I’m actually glad that we waited until 2023 when officially the pandemic is over,” he said. “It feels like people are returning to the theatres.”
On quite the opposite spectrum, indie darling Nicole Holofcener has in her three decades of directing movies grown used to getting smaller releases for her films. So it came as a surprise when A24 told her they wanted to go wide on Memorial Day weekend for “You Hurt My Feelings.”
Her latest is an insightful New York-set comedy about what happens to a relationship when Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character accidentally overhears her therapist husband (Tobias Menzies) confessing that he doesn’t like her book. It debuted to raves at Sundance earlier this year.
“I think A24 felt like, ‘Oh, this could cross over. This doesn’t have to be an indie movie,’” Holofcener said. “But I’ve never had a movie release like that. I’m excited but also anxious. I hope it works out. You know, it’s safe when you release a movie in like six theatres.”
A24 is also giving a wide release to another Sundance sensation, Celine Song’s wistful and romantic directorial debut “Past Lives,” starring Greta Lee as a woman considering the other path her life may have taken. It opens June 2.
Big budget spectacles like “Fast X,” the penultimate movie in the $6 billion franchise led by Vin Diesel, are more typical summer fare. But even well-oiled vehicles like “Fast” run into their own problems and for this film, franchise veteran Justin Lin made the surprising decision to step away from directing while filming was already underway.
French director Louis Leterrier had been talking to Universal about directing a “Fast” film for years, but he never expected his shot to come in the form of a 2am phone call.
He got the script, read it twice before meeting with producers at 6am and later that day was on a plane to London to get “Fast X” back on track during a chaotic week where they’d lost a director and a location: Montenegro. Instinct kicked in and after a week, he’d found his rhythm. And he’s already signed on for the 11th.
“No ‘Fast and Furious’ movie is the same, but this is quite different,” Leterrier said. “Because we’re nearing the end we’re able to take big swings with character and story. There will be some major changes. We’re going to have to say goodbye to characters we love. And Jason Momoa’s character is really an agent of chaos.”
Closing out the summer, on Sept. 1, is Sony’s “The Equalizer 3,” which reunites director Antoine Fuqua with Denzel Washington and takes his character Robert McCall to Italy’s Amalfi coast.
“It will be nice to see a man of colour in a story that’s more international,” Fuqua said. “We normally see the James Bonds doing the international films. And there’s something about Denzel that feels right in Italy.
Comedies are also back in a big way this summer, with films like “No Hard Feelings,” “About My Father,” “Strays” and “Joy Ride,” Adele Lim’s movie about four Asian American girlfriends on a trip to China, coming to theatres.
Seth Rogen produced “Joy Ride,” which already has a 100 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes going into its June 23 release.
“There’s not a lot of people even aspiring necessarily to make a big, raucous, wild, crowd-pleasing R-rated comedy these days and it’s such a joyous experience when those things work,” Rogen said. “Some people would argue that big R-rated comedies don’t take the swings they used to anymore. I would tell them to go see this movie.”
Rogen is also the driving engine behind a new animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, “Mutant Mayhem” (Aug. 4) which he shepherded since the beginning as a producer, co-writer, voice actor and general Ninja Turtles enthusiast.
Years ago he wrote a kind of joke tweet about how the “teenage” part of the mutant ninja turtles was the most interesting aspect of the characters and one that had been largely ignored by the movies. But it stuck in his head and eventually inspired this film which combines action-adventure and coming of age. The animation was even inspired by the “reckless energy” of scribbling in a notebook during school.
Rogen cast himself as Bebop, opposite John Cena’s Rocksteady and called on a host of funny friends and actors to round out the cast. Ice Cube is Superfly. Ayo Edebiri is April. Paul Rudd is Mondo Gecko. Rose Byrne is Leatherhead, Hannibal Buress is Genghis Frog and Jackie Chan is Master Splinter.
“What’s really cool is that we did pretty much all the recording sessions in big groups. We had some with eight people at the same time,” Rogen said. “It brings so much life and energy to it.”
He’s also felt the gaze of the business returning to theatres.
“Hollywood seems to be embracing this idea again, that movies can do well in theatres, but actually movies only do really well on a streaming service if they already were in the theatre,” Rogen said. “The cultural cachet you get from being in a theatre is irreplaceable.”