Why movie studios should start thinking differently about Labor Day

Hollywood's leaving money on the table by treating the holiday as a dead zone

A movie theater.
(Image credit: Illustrated | James_Gabbert/iStock, Tanyasun/iStock)

If you want to go out to see a new movie this Labor Day weekend and you're already caught up with the major wide releases of August, you have exactly one choice (not counting rejiggered re-releases of Spider-Man: Far From Home or Midsommar). That choice is Don't Let Go, and it's barely a choice at all. The sci-fi thriller is only showing in 900 theaters, a modest wide release that underlines exactly what movie studios assume about your Labor Day weekend plans: They probably don't involve the theater.

Treating Labor Day like a movie graveyard is both part of a rich tradition and a strange break in protocol. Certain times of year have always been treated as dumping grounds, but those corridors have narrowed in recent years as studios have planted more tentpoles. Every other major holiday weekend of the year is now treated as a major opportunity, even formerly fallow weekends like Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents' Day. Yet Labor Day still languishes, even as the weekend after it (which used to be even more barren) has been revitalized by a series of Warner Bros. releases: Sully, It, The Nun, and now It: Chapter 2, expected to have a massive debut around this time next week.

A few other "dump" slots remain, but they tend to be a little more logical: Big movies often stay off of Super Bowl weekend, knowing Sunday business will be way down, and the first full weekend in January is usually already crowded with Christmas holdovers and expansions (though it's become a reliable time to launch a horror movie). There have also been a few niche Labor Day successes over the years: a One Direction concert movie; the Spanish-language comedy Instructions Not Included; some horror pictures that did quite well, including the remake of Halloween. No, not the huge hit from last year; the previous remake of Halloween from 2007. It's remained the highest-grossing Labor Day Weekend release ever since then, and it couldn't clear $60 million in North America.

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Labor Day is also the most extreme example of the release schedule as a self-fulfilling prophecy. As studios call their release dates earlier and earlier, hoping to get a jump on their competition (which increasingly, specifically means on the Disney movies that might flatten them), the movie calendar feels more ritualized than ever. Release dates are often chosen with such attention to precedent that they often blur the line between strategy and superstition. Venom was a big hit on the first weekend of October 2018, so fellow supervillain origin story Joker has that spot for 2019. The Greatest Showman did well against a Star Wars movie in 2017, so Cats is going up against another Star Wars movie in December. Even dumped releases start to feel patterned: Don't Let Go is a scrappy, sci-fi-tinged thriller with a mostly black cast—just like Kin, one of last year's Labor Day movies. Kin wasn't a hit movie, but no matter; it still makes Don't Let Go feel vaguely familiar.

Maybe that familiarity is comforting, the same way that other yearly rituals — birthdays, holidays, "back to school," pumpkin-spice lattes — are comforting. But it may also make a subtle contribution to audience disillusionment, training moviegoers not to bother with end-of-summer releases, like a reverse-recommendation: If you didn't want to see Kin, don't bother with Don't Let Go. Are Labor Day movies really that bad, or are they victims of confirmation bias?

In this particular case, Don't Let Go is a serviceable potboiler with a better-than-serviceable hook: A cop (David Oyelowo) haunted by the murder of his brother, sister-in-law, and niece receives a phone call from that same niece (Storm Reid), alive and well — two weeks in the past. He attempts to use this unexplained time-skipped cellular connection to solve the murders — and prevent them from taking place. The movie is directed with a sure hand and written with a shaky one, both belonging to Jacob Aaron Estes; its scenes are tense, well-shot, and sharply cut, but the overall murder mystery is a bust and the screenplay never locates its emotional core. Despite poignant use of time-travel and fine acting from Oyelowo and Reid, Don't Let Go is curiously unmoving. Its family-endangerment plot has the soullessness of a much crummier movie, as if the life somehow drained out when it was sentenced to Labor Day release.

Maybe Labor Day releases are just fulfilling their destiny; Don't Let Go certainly seems more at home as a late-summer B-movie than as a prestigious entry at the Sundance Film Festival, where it debuted last January. But there's nothing about it that requires such a swift burial. Similarly, there's nothing about Labor Day weekend that should require people to stay away from the multiplex — at least not any more than they do already. Netflix is debuting their high-profile Dark Crystal prequel miniseries this weekend, confident that fans will have some time in between barbecues and back-to-school shopping to watch at least a few hours.

It's not as if the release schedule is hurting for lack of blockbusters. If anything, studios could stand to flex a bit more creativity in what and how they sell, and when they sell it. Given the sheer number of movies that still receive theatrical releases, it's odd that a holiday weekend would be a designated give-up zone. Earlier this August, studios opted to wide-release 10 movies over the course of just two weekends, leaving films as diverse in content (and quality) as Dora and the Lost City of Gold, The Kitchen, Blinded by the Light, and Where'd You Go, Bernadette to wither together.

The advent of streaming may encourage plenty of people to stay home, but it should also undermine the idea that viewers only expect certain types of movies at certain times. Why tag Don't Let Go as a clearance-rack item? Audiences can do that to any movie, at any time of year.

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Jesse Hassenger

Jesse Hassenger's film and culture criticism has appeared in The Onion's A.V. Club, Brooklyn Magazine, and Men's Journal online, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, where he also writes fiction, edits textbooks, and helps run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast.