January is a very busy month for Hollywood. Awards season is in full swing, with critics circles giving out their awards and the big Oscar predecessors throwing their own massive parties in preparation for nomination morning (happening this Monday!) The Sundance Film Festival is kicking off soon. If you’re hoping to catch up with those buzzed-about movies then the chances are they’ll get a wider release this month after their limited December opening to qualify for the top prize. For us Brits, this is a great month to get all the American releases competing for those little gold men, from Little Women to Uncut Gems (a Netflix release here) to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. So, what if none of that interests you and you just want to go see a new movie at the cinema in mid-January? Well, you’re kind of bereft of exciting mainstream options.
In North America, the slate of big studio titles in January that aren’t wide expansions of previously limited releases is, to put it politely, a bit mixed. You’ve got Underwater with Kristen Stewart, the comedy Like a Boss, the threequel Bad Boys For Live, and the Robert Downey Jr. passion project Dolittle, to name but four films. Last week, we had the latest remake of The Grudge, a film that did reasonably okay at the box office but also received a rare F rating from CinemaScore. Suffice to say, there isn’t a whole lot here that I imagine being listed on people’s list of their most anticipated movies of 2020.
Traditionally, January and February are considered the dumping ground by major studios who want to push out some of their less commercial releases or the ones that they know will flop with audiences and critics alike. August and September are often thought of similarly as ‘dump months’ but not to the extent of the beginning of the year, which feels like a veritable wasteland for cinema. You can practically sense the industry-wide apathy this month.
Writing in the New York Times Magazine in 2014, Ty Burr noted how Hollywood has been reasonably consistent with its scheduling since the industry became a major media force. The big money is made during the holidays and periods of good weather. Labor Day weekend has always been a boom period for the box office, as has Summer. January was traditionally quieter but not bereft of hits, and the abandonment of the month didn’t truly kick in until the 1950s as the studio system broke down and film scheduling got more calculated. With producers competing with TV for audiences’ attention, they produced bigger movies and made their very release an event, clumped around periods when viewers, but especially families, would be free and looking for entertainment. By the time the concept of the Summer blockbuster came to fruition in the era of Jaws and Star Wars, the pattern was all but set in stone, and Hollywood has always loved to follow a trend. If it worked for Lucas and Spielberg…
Enter the 1990s and we see a new structure of cinematic releases forming, this time centered on the Oscars. Studios like Miramax (boo) perfect the model of releasing their awards season favorites in the final weeks of December then widen the theater numbers when the nominations come in. For those that don’t get the end-of-the-year push, they’re typically put into an October or November slot, amid the Fall festival season to keep buzz high. If you want voters to remember your movie then it’s advisable not to release it in January or February.
By January, audiences are also exhausted and broke. Christmas and the holiday season has drained our energy and our wallets. We’ve probably already hit our seasonal cinema visit quota with whatever Disney, Lucasfilm, and Marvel are up to, or we’re recovering from the ketamine-fuelled nightmare of Cats. We’re all back to work and the kids have returned to school. The nights are still dark but there’s no festive cheer to lift up the mood, and for the one month we’ve committed to our New Year’s resolutions, we’re tightening our belts and less inclined to leave the house. At least, we’re not motivated to do so in the same way we are for busier seasons, especially if the weather is terrible. None of these movies feels like an event.
Things have changed somewhat over the past few years, although such things haven’t impacted January’s status as a dumping ground too dramatically. In the age of the never-ending cinematic franchise and Disney’s crushing media monopoly dominating the landscape, studios must scatter their releases more evenly across the calendar. If you’re Marvel Studios and you insist on releasing three movies a year on average, and you need to make sure you don’t step on the toes of the latest Disney live-action remake or Star Wars title, then you put a movie in an early February spot. Once upon a time, doing so would have been an announcement to the world that the movie was crap and the studio were just giving up. Now, you can get away with it. Well, you can if you’re Disney or if you’re releasing something in a major series with a large pre-established fan-base. The Summer season doesn’t exist for Disney anymore. With a couple of glaring exceptions aide, they’re able to release a film at any point in time and see the profits roll in because their brand has come to thoroughly dominate audiences and their tastes. But even Disney doesn’t release something in January unless it really stinks.
Some have argued that audiences will go and see a movie at any point in the year if it’s good enough to warrant their attention. There is some logic to that but there’s always more at play than a film’s quality. It’s a matter of competition versus fluctuations in the market versus audience fatigue and much more. Priorities are elsewhere for studios and audiences have yet to truly prove they will come out in droves for a January movie, so the status quo remains. That’s not to say that we are bereft of viewing options this month. Plenty of Oscar faves have wider releases now and many overlooked titles from the rest of the year are arriving on the home market this season that are worth checking out. Then again, in an age of endless content, maybe there is something to be said in favor of the peace of the dumping ground.
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