By Rob Gelb
Think about your favorite film, or films. Now, look up at what month it came out during the year it came to theaters. Chances are it was not in January.
In the film community, the months of January and even February are more often than not recognized as a “dump period.” The films are typically of low quality, and are not expected to succeed nearly as much as films released a few months (if not a few weeks) prior to “Happy New Year!” To quote Dr. Evil, “It's easy to kill a movie. Just move it to January.”
So why January and February, of all months?
There are a few reasons, and they trace back to both the movie executive and the movie patron.
For starters, there is the timing. Oscar season has already begun at this point, and movies that have not premiered or been released until past December are no longer eligible for nomination. Furthermore, films that do get nominated for awards often are re-released in theaters, capitalizing on the buzz that the film is getting. It is easy to say that most moviegoers at that time are more interested in the Oscar nominated films than the films being released for the first time. Studios are aware of this, and so they play it safe.
What playing it safe means is releasing movies studios suspect are of low quality. The way it works is this: movies are screened to a test audience prior to setting up a release date. These audience reaction help decide where the film should be placed. In many cases, well received movies are placed between August and December, while poorly received movies end up in January or February. It is a way for them to cut their losses with films they are worried will bomb.
Often they are right. Films on average are rated poorly compared to any other months of the year. A quick check on the website Rotten Tomatoes is all you need to get my point.
At the same time, and maybe as a consequence, fewer people go to see movies in January. In fact, some years the box office will report that the total gross revenue will be under $1 billion for the entire month. To put that into perspective, some of the highest grossing films of a given year have individually made more money than all of those January films put together.
There just is not the market or audience available at this point, and here is why. After Christmas has ended, chances are people have spent their fair share of disposable income on holiday presents. In fact, Consumer Reports indicated that people on average overspend by 16%, especially when it comes to using a credit card. People want to save, and there is invariably a dip in domestic consumption starting at the beginning of the year. The cold weather does not help either, as people are less likely to going to movie theaters, preferring to stay inside and watching Netflix in the comfort of their home. I know I would.
Not all of this is set in stone. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule. Many Clint Eastwood films do very well, even when released in January-American Sniper is one of them, taking in over $300 million in gross revenue last month alone. Meanwhile, take a film like Silence of the Lambs. Released in the middle of February, which is still part of the dump period, it was a box office smash, and would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture 12 months after it first came to theaters. At the same time though, think long and hard about whether or not the other dozen or so movies that are part of that dump period group every year are worth the money.
Personally, I almost never see a movie in theaters between December and March. Thank goodness for Netflix.