Rhona Mitra in the third installment of the Underworld franchise.
Call it the post-holiday doldrums, or the pre-Oscar lull. While the end of the year always heralds big-budget action movies, family-friendly flicks and arty film fare seeking award accolades, January by and large leaves the public with meager cinematic scraps. It’s not like people stop going to the movies. Their purse strings might get a little tighter after their annual Christmas shopping blitz, but they still want to be entertained. And it’s not like the studios run out of product. They just hide the turkeys, ironically, until after holiday time, while they wait for their Oscar contenders to win Academy validation in late February and slowly score bigger gains along the way. You may have seen these past misfits: Code Name: The Cleaner. BloodRayne. Alone In The Dark. Beverly Hills Ninja.
Of course, in being critical of January drek, I’m being facetious. There are many exceptions to the turkey rule, such as the controversial Alpha Dog, the anime feature Tokyo Godfathers, and the documentaries The Corporation and Why We Fight. Not that they raked in megabucks. That could say something about the moviegoing public’s taste; although to be fair, they sometimes do not know such movies are even out in theaters. And there are often well-received, limited-release holdovers from the end of the year that peak in January, such as last year’s The Bucket List, which pulled in two-thirds of its $92 million haul in that one month alone, and Juno, which earned over one-third of its $143 million winnings then as well. Could Frost/Nixon or Doubt be next?
It’s all about marketing the right movies at the right time. Studios use the beginning of the year to dump mediocre titles – or, in some cases, underdogs – that would not survive against summer blockbusters or better-crafted movies. This way there’s a chance they can snare moviegoers’ money simply because they have few options available. Case in point: last January’s über-macho and ultra-violent Rambo. Even though Sylvester Stallone had an impressive comeback success with Rocky Balboa, it was dubious that his return to the ex-Vietnam anti-hero he popularized in the ‘80s would fly as high. With little competition, it made a decent but unspectacular $43 million, making it the lowest-grossing entry in the series even before you convert the numbers into 2008 dollars. But that’s still better than if it came out in April or May or August.
Occasionally, even January releases become hits despite themselves, such as the insipid 27 Dresses (January 2007, $76 million) and Big Momma’s House 2 (2006, $70 million). In January 2005, the Ice Cube family travel comedy Are We There Yet? drove off with $72 million of your hard earned cash. That’s depressing when you think about it. But would they have nabbed as much loot competing at other times of the year? A good question, but one not easily answered since we now view them as hits.
The oft-maligned horror genre, usually of the B-grade variety, often thrives in the January wasteland. Three years ago torture-porn keystone Hostel became a hit, scaring up $47 million. (Its subsequent summer 2007 sequel tanked.) This year a whole slew of fear fare will haunt theaters, including The Unborn, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, The Uninvited, and My Bloody Valentine 3-D. There is also the week-long After Dark Horrorfest, the third incarnation of an event that previously occurred in the falls of 2006 and 2007, with diminishing returns the second time around. Funny how it’s now returning in January.
Could any of these scary sagas strike box office gold? January is gradually becoming the surrogate October for horror, particularly for unlikely box office contenders. Last year proved to be great for the clever, J.J. Abrams-produced monster mash Cloverfield. Boosted by a shrewd viral web campaign that included character MySpace pages, it became a surprise hit with a $80 million take on a $25 million budget. It showed that an unorthodox movie without traditional expectations or marketing could capitalize on the January lull.
What’s interesting to note is that smaller indie movies that need more attention – and let’s face it, the studios have taken over the “indie” business in recent years – might fare well or better in January if given a chance. Sure, they might be forgotten by Oscar time, but not every arty film is an award contender. And who knows? The next March of the Penguins or Juno might very well emerge at the beginning of the year and develop enough momentum to last through the spring, and bolstered by a late summer or fall DVD release could certainly maintain critical interest come awards season.
Hopefully in the coming months, as the movie and home video industries start taking hits thanks to an economy that seems to be sparing no one mercy, things will change. While certain rules hold true – romantic comedies tug at our heartstrings (and wallets) around Valentine’s Day, horror movies rock our Halloween, and kid-friendly flicks lure the holiday crowds – others are not so clear-cut. It might be refreshing if movies misplaced in the marketing machines of major studios got a shot at a different time of year, say January, to offer the public relief from a limited number of mainstream choices.
There is gold in them thar theaters! After all, the masses still want to watch something good after the holidays.
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