January, despite being my birthday month, is kind of the worst: it’s cold, it snows, the new year’s resolutions are already falling to the wayside, and, worst of all, there’s only so much escapism from all of that which we can find at the movies during this time of year. I first noticed this about 10 years ago or so, when I had the oh-so-brilliant idea of having a movie theater birthday party. It was one of the Underworld films, and needless to say, it wasn’t good. Everyone was pretty eager to get out of the Goth stupidity happening on the darkened theater screen and head into the pizza-and-cake portion of the affair, where even the gray cold of winter was more welcoming than the blueish hell that was that movie. It wasn’t until later though that I realized this was a fairly legitimate trend– it wasn’t just my imagination or poor viewing choices. So, what is it about this time of year that yields such mediocre and unmemorable cinematic fare?
Here are some thoughts I have:
1) Escapism Gone Horribly Awry: As I said in my opening, we want escapism, perhaps now more than in any other month or season of the year. We want sunny beach comedies and sizzling action sequences– but why then, why oh why do January’s movies often leave us feeling so utterly cold? You either have the awards season fare– whether still in theaters or back in theaters by popular demand– or popcorn fare. But, none of that popcorn fare is very good, and that is probably because studios save the best popcorn fare for summer when they know it will make money. “Summer Blockbuster” is a pretty common term, but “Winter Blockbuster?” Not so much.
2.) Seasonal Weather: The aforementioned horrible weather certainly matters on its own. Not only do the freezing temperatures and slippery roads keep moviegoers at bay, but some theaters even close early for the day if the storm is bad enough to warrant it– which was the case in my native New York City with this recent, slightly over-hyped blizzard of 2015.
3.) School’s in Session: So while Winter Storm Juno slowed business down in the northeast, and while similar situations probably occur all winter long in other parts of America, we also have to consider who’d even be able to go to the movies in January. Schools are in session, so the movie business no longer has the benefit of out-of-school kids spending their allowances on tickets.
4.) Sundance: American critics go crazy for this film festival. Sundance is often the first stopping point for the most innovative, interesting, and in-demand indie pictures that might go on to be the cult hits or Oscar favorites of the near-future. Distributors are there to acquire these films and pick the best of the best, but they’re also thinking of what films they’ve already got on the docket– and they most likely seize the opportunity to release films that maybe wouldn’t go over so well with critics, at a time where those critics are busy reviewing and rating the Sundance lineup instead.
Maybe it’s a vicious cycle– the movies tend to be sub-par, to both critics and moviegoers, and so the moviegoers stop going and nothing makes much money. So why release your cash cow when no one might bother supplying said cash?
Granted, as I write this, American Sniper just easily broke records in its opening weekend. I haven’t seen it so I can’t say for certain whether it did so based on its merits, or its ensuing controversy, or Awards buzz, or some kind of patriotism, or some weird combination of all these things. Yet, there’s also the fact that the box office bar was set relatively low from one year to the next, especially if this trend repeats itself as consistently as it seems to. So I’m not sure how this film changes the game, if it even does.
But, American Sniper, which is nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, also serves as a nice bridge before our first point to our last.
5.) Awards Season Focus: Maybe the other reason studios and distributors don’t put out their best work in January is because everyone is distracted by the awards season fodder, and let’s face it, that portion of film culture is more overwhelming and time consuming than ever. With more award shows than ever before, it seems, and with more nominees up for the Oscar than ever before, and with theaters offering marathons of all the Best Picture Oscar nominated films, who has time to see anything else, even if it were actually good? We’re all too busy catching up and prepping for the Academy Awards, and like cramming for a test, there’s really no way we’d have the energy or motivation to do any other homework, especially if that homework involves, well, movies that won’t satisfy us and which, by certain important measurements anyway, don’t matter. The Oscars have become the ultimate grade; everything else is gym class.
But, is any of this a valid excuse? I always advocate for a balance, and January seems to tip the scale in the opposite direction than usual, with more TV spots telling us how many nominations and wins the awards season flicks each have, than there are trailers for anything new, upcoming or not nominated for anything at all. So, maybe in some months time, these January releases will be nominated for Razzies– I’m looking at you, Mortdecai. But for now, they’re simply overshadowed, under-watched, and negatively-reviewed mainstream movies whose reception as such is indeed a chilly one.