Feature

For the movie industry, every month is January now

How pandemic has changed "dump months," maybe forever

Long nights, short days, and Escape Room 2 — yep, it's January again! Traditionally the dumping ground for movie studios to quietly dispose of films they're contractually obliged to release but don't expect to do well, the first month of the year has long had a reputation as "Hollywood's very own leper colony, a hot zone of cinematic contagion." In a good year, the average Rotten Tomatoes score of movies released in January might hover in the 40s; in a very bad year, like 1989, when DeepStar Six and something called Gleaming the Cube were on the calendar, it can be as low as a dismal 16 percent.

At least, that's how it used to be, before every month was January. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, movie studios have routinely scooped up most of their surefire moneymakers and rescheduled them for 2021, when they hope theaters will reopen. Left in the dust were the stragglers, the weird and the risky and the downright bad, with every ensuing month of 2020 becoming a quasi dumping ground as a result.

But if every month is January now, where does that leave, well, January?

So-called "dump months" (which refers mainly to January, but also February and to a lesser extent August) initially emerged out of the creation of their opposites: the summer blockbuster and autumn awards seasons. January release dates had been far less of a guarantee of mediocrity during the Silent and Classic Hollywood Eras, when hits like Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921), Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Howard Hawk's His Girl Friday (1940), and John Ford's Grapes of Wrath (1940) were all scheduled to kick off the year, The New York Times Magazine reports. Come Jaws and Star Wars, though, summer would be singled out by studios as a time when families were "free and looking for entertainment," Pajiba explains, while by the 1990s, Miramax had "perfect[ed] the model of releasing their awards season favorites in the final weeks of December," so their movies would stay on the forefront of voters' minds. Other studios soon followed suit, so that by the time it was finally January, audiences were "exhausted and broke," Pajiba adds — hence why it's the time of year we're now subjected to things like Dolittle.

That model, though, assumes there isn't a pandemic going on. Last year, the summer blockbusters and autumn awards bait were largely (though not entirely) pulled from the schedule and crammed into 2021, flooding this year's upcoming release calendar with weekend after weekend of can't-miss movies and leaving 2020 looking like 10 months of consecutive Januarys. Delayed were the new James Bond, Godzilla vs. Kong, Stephen Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, Top Gun: Maverick, and the buzzy Dune adaptation; left behind were movies that studios either didn't feel at risk of losing too much money over, like the rom-com Wild Mountain Thyme, or that they wanted to experiment with, like Mulan and Tenet. Quality ranged dramatically as a result: On the upside, Netflix's Dick Johnson Is Dead and other good, smaller films were given the room to breathe on streamers without being crowded out by bigger names on the (virtual) marquee, while others (like the one in which James Dornan thinks he's a bee) would have been duds regardless.

The transition away from one concentrated month of dumped bad movies predated the pandemic, though. In particular, as Netflix has moved more heavily into releasing original movies, it's become a sort of year-round "dumping ground," since there is less risk as a subscriber-driven service in individual movies bombing. As Calum Marsh wrote for The National Post, in recent years Netflix movies "by and large are unreleasable theatrically, devoid of both artistic merit and commercial potential." While there are occasional diamonds in the rough — Martin Scorsese's impressive passion project The Irishman wouldn't have been backed by different studio — Netflix's model spreads the mediocrity more evenly throughout the year. That was especially true in 2020, when the streamer, by virtue of its format, became one of the most reliable and consistent sources of new movies.

But every month being January now perhaps isn't even such a bad thing. In 2020, for example, there were a number of entertaining and interesting horror movies out in the first month of the year that defied January's otherwise well-earned reputation for garbage (looking at you, One Missed Call). An optimistic outlook might see January becoming a month where such movies thrive: rewarding works that, by coming out in January, don't have to compete against the blockbuster of the week. That will be particularly important once theaters reopen this year, and are trying to fit in last year's tentpoles alongside what was already planned for 2021; movies without big stars or big budgets might be drowned out, potentially leading to a different, and far more expensive, kind of mediocrity month after month.

Still, January is going to January, which is why we have the release this week of the abomination that is Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway. But as bad movies stop being concentrated specifically at the start of the year, and distribution of quality becomes more equal throughout the 12 months, then dump months as we now know them could become a thing of the past. Because if everything is a January, then nothing is.

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