(CNN) — We’re in the thick of the pre-summer movie doldrums.

While movie theaters are anxious to continue their post-pandemic recovery, the residual impact of 2023 strikes by the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild — which halted work on productions for months at a time — is being felt, with several holes in the schedule left by films that pushed their release dates back.

There’s hope on the horizon, though: Last summer was a godsend for theaters struggling to restore attendance to pre-pandemic levels, with acclaimed hits like “Barbie,” “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” and “Oppenheimer.” And there’s the potential for another “Barbie”-sized hit this summer: Sequels to “Deadpool,” “Inside Out,” “Despicable Me” and more successful properties are coming soon.

But until then, movie theaters are getting creative to bring audiences in. From anticipated re-releases to expanded screenings in premium formats like IMAX, plus the occasional pricey, curiously themed popcorn buckets, here’s what movie theaters are doing this year to appeal to audiences when the release schedule is sparse.

Re-releases, mini film festivals and exclusive merch can bring viewers back

There’s typically a lull in the release schedule in the months following the cutoff for Oscars eligibility. Prestige films are usually held until the fall and early winter so they don’t have to compete for attention with expensive crowd-pleasers, which normally dominate summer.

Historically, late winter and early fall have been slow periods for movie theaters because studios rarely release their biggest titles in that time. January, February and September in particular have been nicknamed “dump months” since studios plopped films with questionable box office prospects into those release slots with little fanfare.

That’s held true so far this year, too: January and February fell short of typical box office numbers for those months in the pre-pandemic era, said Ray Subers, senior vice president and head of film for NRG, or National Research Group, a firm that follows developments in entertainment and tech.

Alamo Drafthouse, meanwhile, one of the most successful specialty theater chains in the US with over 40 locations, has leaned into quieter months with gusto, programming screenings of classics and hidden gems and often pairing them with winning merchandise and a themed menu.

John Smith, Alamo Drafthouse’s senior film programmer, likened the “dump months” to “hurricane season — we know it’s coming and can prepare.”

Smith heads a team devoted entirely to “alt content,” so they’re monitoring the schedule of first-run films to find gaps to fill. This month, a relatively quiet one for major new films, there are anniversary screenings for 1999’s “The Mummy” and 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead,” a movie party featuring props and costumes for Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth” and a screening of “Dumb and Dumber,” the latest in Alamo’s “Time Capsule” series which focuses on films released in significant years for movie-making (this installment is set in 1994).

“If we’re only ever playing the ‘hits,’ we’re missing out on growing and sustaining a film-loving audience that demands a diverse and satisfying film slate,” Smith said. “They’re the audience that we rely on in the slower time periods, and who help us stand out on the films that we think are important.”

Case in point: “Poor Things,” for which Emma Stone won an Oscar earlier this year, brought in as much revenue for the Drafthouse as Taylor’s Swift’s mega-hit “Eras Tour” concert film, he said. The Stone-led indie was feted at Drafthouse locations across the US with exclusive pins, specialty brunch screenings and at least one live Q&A with some of its stars, including Oscar nominated Mark Ruffalo.

Major chains like AMC and Regal are leaning into counterprogramming and opportunities off-screen, too. Both theaters are upping their merchandise game, with AMC’s infamous “Dune” popcorn vessel and green popcorn and Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man toys for “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” at Regal.

They’re also both betting big on re-releases with series like “Regal Forever Favorites” and the recent “Halfway to Halloween” festival at AMC. The latter chain partnered with Blumhouse, the studio behind horror hits like “The Purge” and “Split,” to bring those and more films back to the screen.

And though superhero flicks are usually synonymous with summer, the release schedule this summer is mostly devoid of family-friendly Marvel and DC tentpoles (save for two R-rated romps starring Deadpool and Kraven the Hunter). AMC is filling the void by bringing all eight Spider-Man movies back to theaters throughout the spring and summer, starting with Sam Raimi’s 2002 original on April 15, in a weekly event called Spider-Mondays.

The biggest re-release gimmick of the year, though, belongs to Disney: On May the 4th, known as “Star Wars Day,” select theaters will host a theatrical marathon of nine “Star Wars” films in the “Skywalker Saga” back to back (to back, to back …) — “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” kicks off on May 3, and the following films will play continuously (with bathroom breaks, of course) until “Episode VIII: The Rise of Skywalker” ends on May 4.

Betting on IMAX and indie

Critics and fans of recent hits like “Oppenheimer” and “Dune: Part Two” have called on fellow viewers to experience the films on the biggest screen possible — and, in most cases, that’s an IMAX screen. IMAX theaters typically feature massive screens with a taller aspect ratio and sharper image resolution, and some directors, including Christopher Nolan for “Oppenheimer” and Denis Villeneuve for “Dune: Part Two,” shoot on film stock specifically meant for IMAX.

Those enhancements mean that tickets are steeper for films in IMAX, sometimes running more than double the price of admission to a standard showing. But audiences have shown an increased willingness to shell out for films that excite them: Both “Dune: Part Two” and “Oppenheimer” saw about 20% of their sales come from IMAX tickets, Variety reported earlier this month.

With IMAX attendance up and more interest in films screening in premium formats from IMAX competitors like Dolby Cinema or ScreenX, there’s “clearly room for expansion,” Subers, the NRG film researcher, said.

“People are seeing a trip to the theater as a special treat, so enhancing these premium experiences could be a key differentiator for theaters in today’s landscape,” Subers told CNN.

Blockbusters with sharp cinematography and major action-driven set pieces are the typical fare that play in IMAX, but theaters are switching that up this spring. IMAX theaters will show three films from powerhouse indie studio A24 —  “Ex Machina,” “Hereditary” and “Uncut Gems,” three thrilling and horrifying critical successes that were originally released on standard screens. They’ll each play in IMAX for one night every month, beginning with “Ex Machina” in late March.

Another unconventional candidate for IMAX? Live sports. NBC’s coverage of certain Summer Olympics events will play on AMC screens, including IMAX, across the US later this summer — right in the thick of a typical “dump” period.

Though there’s always potential for breakout hits, movie theaters will likely stay a bit quieter in April and May, still reeling from strike-related setbacks and the typical pre-summer schedule, Subers said. But the back half of the year will be chock-full of potential blockbusters and sequels to familiar favorites, he added: There are 15 franchise films scheduled between June and late December whose predecessor earned over $150 million at the US box office (such as “Moana,” “Bad Boys” and “Sonic the Hedgehog”), which suggests that theaters could see healthy attendance until the end of the year.

And even though various factors have slowed down the movie theater revival of 2024 so far, 2025 is promising to be a massive year at the movies: Superheroes will return in full force with new versions of “Fantastic Four” and “Superman,” films from beloved auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson and Bong Joon Ho and reimaginings of popular IP from Snow White to the video game Minecraft.

“The strikes made the first half of this year merely okay, and the second half pretty big,” Smith said. “It’s making 2025 look like one of the best cinema years since 2019.”

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