January: Dumping Ground for Terrible Movies Like 'Contraband'

In a traditionally weak month at the box office, here are six ways for studios to find success.

meslow contraband marky mark 615.jpg

Universal Pictures

Is there anything worse for cinephiles than the traditional post-holiday movie hangover of January, a month that annually welcomes some of the worst movies of the year? In the wake of last week's dreadful (but profitable) The Devil Inside , tomorrow sees the release of Contraband—a brainless, lazy "thriller" with a Mark Wahlberg-sized charisma void where its leading man should be. It's the kind of movie that will probably spend the next two decades airing at 2 a.m. on TNT, and that's exactly where it belongs. But despite its poor quality, Contraband isn't premiering on basic cable; it's premiering in 2,750 movie theaters across the nation.

Unfortunately, Contraband is par for the course for January, which typically sees many of the year's worst movies unceremoniously dumped into cinemas. According to Box Office Mojo's data, since 2004, the top-grossing film in January has generally made less than half the total box-office take of the top-grossing film in December. Over the past decade, only one of January's top-grossing films has been certified as "Fresh" by review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes (2008's Cloverfield, at 77 percent positive reviews), with several of the top-grossers— including 2003's Kangaroo Jack, 2006's Big Momma's House 2, and The Devil Inside—earning less than 10 percent positive reviews.

What's the matter with January? And what's a discerning moviegoer to do? In an email to The Atlantic, Box Office Mojo editor Ray Subers offers an explanation for Hollywood's traditional, unimpressive January release schedule:

January typically sees genre films and films that have tested poorly getting their contractually-due theatrical release, while discerning adult audiences are catching up on the various ten-best lists and the general moviegoers are seeing the event films of December.

There are plenty of acclaimed films in theaters that got short shrift during the mad rush of the holiday film season in December 2011, including The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, War Horse, and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady is taking this week's lame-duck new releases as an excuse to expand into a wider release. And the latest entries in the Mission: Impossible and Sherlock Holmes franchises continue to draw steady business in the wake of their original December releases.

So audiences have options. But what about Hollywood executives, who annually find themselves on the other end of January's bad-movie problem? January may be a poor time for film fans, but looking at the successes and failures of the past decade, there are a few secrets to achieving box-office victory in the weakest of cinematic months:

1. This is the time for your mediocre comedy…

Audiences tend to react to January comedies like they're the coconut-filled candies in a box of chocolates: not the first choice, but better than nothing, right? As a result, poorly reviewed comedies like Tooth Fairy, Bride Wars, or Hotel For Dogs—which would be lost in the shuffle of a stronger month for comedies or family films—have used the cinematic doldrums of January to find relative success with audiences who'd see something better if they had the choice.

Presented by

Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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