Tentpoles go up early in the (northern) summer movie season

Hollywood is literally supported by “tentpoles” – movies that are so big they also help to sell merchandise as well as hold up a studio’s financial performance. Most are also known as blockbusters and are easily recognisable because they have science fiction or fantasy themes, are based on comic book heroes or are sequels or spinoffs from previously popular movies.

They usually come out on the first weekend of May when the American summer holidays start and to take advantage of younger audiences, who have much more leisure time in weekdays. The season ends in mid-August when schools return and the northern autumn begins.

But the number of tentpoles is increasing and it is playing havoc with Hollywood’s planning process. The four-month window has become crowded, increasing the chances of flops. The studios and cinema chains often trade places so they don’t put up too many tentpoles at the same time.

When supply exceeds demand, as it has, then something’s got to give. And it’s resulted in summer turning into early spring with the release of the first tentpole this year, Universal’s Fast and Furious 7.

As the title suggests, it’s the seventh in the high-octane series that started with the low-budget car chase move Fast and Furious.

A tentpole movie is expected to take at least $US100 million on its first weekend, many times the average for a well-advertised first-run feature.

But releasing Furious 7 this weekend around the world means gambling that audiences will flock to cinemas before the spring weather has arrived in the northern hemisphere.

Between May and mid-August, the Hollywood studioes will release 14 big-budget, adventure or family films, including the latest in the Avengers series, a Disney-Par animated feature called Inside Out and new episodes in the Mad Max, Jurassic Park and Terminator franchises.

That compares with 12 released during that period last year and 18 already scheduled for 2016. A decade ago, it was difficult to get any movie to gross more than $US100 million on a weekend while schools were in still session. But Spider-Man achieved that in May 2002, effectively fixing the tentpole season for the next decade.

Two exceptions broke that rule: Alice in Wonderland and the first of the Hunger Games films grossed more than $US100 million apiece at the US box office in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

Last year, Captain America: The Winter Soldier made $US95 million after being released on April 4, the third-highest opening of 2014 in a year of disappointments.

So much is depending on Furious 7, which was delayed from last year when its star, Paul Walker, died during production. By the time the film was ready, all the good slots had gone .