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Why Are All the Best Horror Films Coming Out in the Summer?

Conjuring Youre Next
Warner Bros./Lionsgate

2013 sees the release of two of the most effective mainstream horror films I’ve seen in years. Both ‘The Conjuring‘ and ‘You’re Next‘ are terrific crowd-pleasers that wisely shake up the stale formula of studio horror movies. Yet, both of these films won’t be in theaters come October, when most of us are really hungry for a good, scary movie. (‘The Conjuring’ is in theaters now and ‘You’re Next’ opens on August 23.)

Meanwhile, looking at the current release schedule for October, there is an almost complete lack of any substantial horror presence (the ‘Carrie‘ remake and a film titled ‘Haunt’ that we’re still unsure will actually make its scheduled date are the only genre films of note).

So, what gives? Why have the best horror movies shifted to the summer and why has October become the home of ‘Runner Runner‘ and ‘Escape Plan‘?

Recently, the October landscape has been dominated by two modern horror powerhouses – ‘Saw’ and ‘Paranormal Activity.’ Both were cheaply produced horror films released on, or around, Halloween that became massively successful and spawned multi-million dollar franchises. (To date the ‘Saw’ and ‘Paranormal Activity’ films have grossed $457.4 million and $350 million in the US alone.) From 2004-2012, if you were going to see a mainstream horror movie during the Halloween season, you were going to see one of these two movies. They didn’t just dominate the marketshare, they owned it.

And because they owned the marketplace, writer Simon Barrett (‘You’re Next,’ ‘VHS 2′) says many horror films didn’t want to open against them.

“Everyone has been afraid of the whole ‘Paranormal’ franchise,” explains Barrett. “It was dominating that slot.”

To find a more even playing field (and to compete as counter-programming to bigger budgeted action films), studios gradually began shifting their best horror movies out of October and into a variety of dates, trying to find what worked until they finally did: the summer. And director Adam Wingard (‘You’re Next’) thinks that makes perfect sense.

“One thing that is unique about both ‘The Conjuring’ and ‘You’re Next’ is that they are kind of summer movies in a way. They’re horror movies, but they’re not horror movies that punish you. They’re horror movies that are a little more fun. The idea is that, maybe this is the new face of horror. Movies that can play to summer audiences.”

Those very summer audiences are made up primarily of teens and college students, the sweet spot for Hollywood marketers, who, says horror writer Eric Walkuski, “have more free time in the summer rather than October, when school is in session.”

With the migration of horror films away from October, maybe these movies don’t need the Halloween bump after all? Not a single movie in either the ‘Friday the 13th’ or ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ franchises were released in October. Even the last five Michael Myers movies – a franchise that actually has the word “Halloween” in the title! – were released outside of that month. As horror becomes more and more mainstream, studios don’t have to market their films specifically to the horror subgenre, they can market to the masses. They don’t need to capitalize on the horror season because, frankly, they can do better business elsewhere.

‘The Conjuring’ wasn’t originally scheduled for a summer release, but as it tested through the roof, Warner Bros. shifted the film to prime mid-July date. It was a bold move, but one that eventually paid off in spades.

Making its debut in a time slot currently dominated by PG-13 family-friendly action franchises, ‘The Conjuring’ opened to the biggest weekend ever for an R-rated horror movie (yes, even beating the ‘Saw’ and ‘Paranormal’ series) and could wind up outgrossing ‘The Lone Ranger,’ ‘Pacific Rim‘ and ‘R.I.P.D.‘ – three movies that cost over $200 million to make. Each.

This could very well be the future of horror movies, and possibly even the future of the summer movie landscape.

It’s a positive sign for horror fans that their beloved genre can hang with the big boys in the summer. Yet, at the same time, we’re still left with a Halloween season mostly devoid of scares at a time when we really want scares. I guess if we want our significant others to hold on to us at a movie theater this October, we’ll just have to go with ‘Romeo & Juliet.’

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