When Did January Become a Movie Dumping Ground?: An Investigation
January is traditionally a month for low attendance and misshapen and misbegotten films. But was it always so? And does it have to be?
In the fall of 1981, Alan Parker had made a film he was proud of and eager to show the public, and understandably so. Shoot the Moon, starring Albert Finney and Diane Keaton as a troubled married couple, would earn Parker some of the strongest reviews of his career, with critics citing Finney and Keaton’s work as particular standouts when it arrived in theaters. But by then it was too late. Because Keaton’s Red contract forbade her from appearing in another 1981 release, Shoot the Moon had to wait until January 1982 for its release. Speaking to Peter Biskind years later for Biskin’s 2010 Beatty bio Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, screenwriter Bo Goldman still sounded bitter. “[W]e had to release Shoot the Moon in January 1982, right after New Year's, the worst possible time for a tough movie like this,” he said. “It died as a result of the release date he had screwed us on.”
It was already conventional wisdom that January wasn’t a great month to release movies. But was the month already a dumping ground for troubled projects back in 1982? It’s a question that becomes harder to answer the deeper you look.
It might even be the wrong question: Is January really a dumping ground? The recent success of M3GAN suggests otherwise, as does the continued success of Avatar: The Way of Water. Yes, it’s cold. Yes, everyone’s broke after the holidays. But people still want to go to the movies.
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That’s an encouraging sign for movie theaters in general, particularly as they’re still trying to find their footing after COVID-19 threw everyone and everything off balance. But, looking back past the pandemic interregnum to 2020,that dread year’s pre-lockdown January contained a breakout hit (Bad Boys for Life) and a too-small-to-be-called-a-failure wide-release horror movie (The Grudge) alongside a bunch of December releases expanding to more theaters. Just about the only thing missing to offer a full scope of the sort of films that thrive in January in recent years is a Liam Neeson action film. (The not-bad The Honest Thief would arrive in October. Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen picked up Neeson’s slack on January 24.)
That January also saw the debut of Dolittle, a troubled (and, frankly, awful) take on the classic talk-to-the-animals character starring Robert Downey Jr. And it’s films like Dolittle (and Serenity, Monster Trucks, Jane Got a Gun, The Green Hornet, Mortdecai, Strange Magic, and every other “I guess we’ll stick this here” release) that January’s reputation as a place for troubled movies has been made.
But how long has this been going on? A quick leap through a few random years points to a long established pattern just via the most notable troubled releases:
January 2014: Labor Day
January 2011: Season of the Witch
January 2007: Alone in the Dark
January 1999: Virus
January 1994: Cabin Boy (that’s not meant as a knock against the film’s quality)
January 1988: The Couch Trip
And on and on. Notably, this list skips quite a few hits. Films really can succeed in the coldest stretch of the year. But that doesn’t mean January’s reputation as a place where thoughtful movies and misbegotten summer blockbusters go to die (or maybe eke out a modest profit in a less competitive field) isn’t well earned. Goldman, in other words, had reason to fear Shoot the Moon’s fate in 1982.
By then, January was more or less a dead zone, at least for that kind of prestigious fare. That doesn’t mean it didn’t produce some great movies. David Cronenberg’s Scanners topped the box office on January 21, 1981. But Cronenberg’s film was a mind-bending science fiction/horror film in exploitation drag. As far as the marketplace was concerned, it wasn’t that different from the biggest new January release of the previous year, Silent Scream (not to be confused with the similarly titled 1984 anti-abortion film The Silent Scream).
Rolling it back a little further, the late-’70s are filled with January weekends primarily made up of the previous December’s big films. Moviegoers in January 1978, for instance, mostly went to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever, The Gauntlet, and Pete’s Dragon, all hangovers from the previous year. Is the January dumping ground an early blockbuster-era phenomenon from the years after Jaws and Star Wars changed the scale at which films were distributed? Short answer: Mostly. Longer answer: It’s complicated.
Take Young Frankenstein, for instance. Mel Brooks’s classic parody premiered in New York on December 15, 1974 but didn’t earn enough money in a single week to crack Variety’s box office top 10 until mid-January 1975. That wasn’t because it wasn’t a hit. It just wasn’t playing in enough markets to earn enough to beat out The Godfather Part II, The Towering Inferno, The Man with the Golden Gun, or The Island at the Top of the World (?) until then. It wouldn’t reach some markets until spring.
At a certain point, it stops making sense to think of the January box office (or the box office of any month) in contemporary terms. The wide release, first-weekend-is-all-that-matters approach to putting movies in theaters doesn’t apply. Nonetheless, let’s push forward (or, more accurately, backward) in search of a truly vibrant January hit.
The first true contender belongs to January of 1963, thanks to the chart-topping success of Sodom and Gomorrah, an international co-production directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Stewart Granger and Anouk Aimee. But, in a sign of box office patterns to come, Sodom and Gomorrah burned bright but fast, disappearing from the top ten after a mere three weeks. Similarly, Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy, an epic from a different point in ancient history, made a splashy debut at the end of January 1956 before beginning a slow fade into obscurity.
Beyond that, deeper in an era dominated by neighborhood movie houses and even further removed from current release patterns, it gets murkier still. Even now, January is defined by murkiness. The scale of M3GAN’s success might have come as a surprise, but it fits the pattern of past films to succeed in January, as do upcoming titles like Plane and House Party, which combined offer a well-balanced January meal of horror, comedy, and action. But could a different sort of movie succeed in January? There are reasons to worry about theaters’ future, but maybe we’re in a moment when the old rules don’t really apply anymore. Put out a full-scale blockbuster on New Year’s Day. Use January to revive and revise the American musical for the 21st century. Re-release Shoot the Moon. (Maybe the second time will be the charm?) Who’s to say? It’s January. It’s a mystery and maybe it always will be.
Note: The original version of this post mistakenly had Leonard Part 6 as a January 1987 release. In fact, it was released on December 18, 1987 and received a sizable marketing push. The Reveal regrets the error and regrets suggesting Leonard Part 6 was anything to be ashamed of.
Leonard Part 6 came out in December 1987 (I know this, sadly, b/c I actually did see it in theaters at age 9). Double-checked it online, too. It was a Christmas season wide release.
Some of my favorite films to debut in theaters in January: Tremors, Matinee, Alive, Haywire.
Darn. I got some bad information. Going to find another example.