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.

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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.

2. …Or your mediocre action movie…

The same scheme exists for mid-range action movies like The Book of Eli and Underworld: Evolution, which eked out modest box-office profits in January instead of floundering among other, better action movies during the summer blockbuster season. And 2011's mediocre superhero flick The Green Hornet, which would almost certainly have floundered at its originally scheduled summer 2010 release date, found a respectable, competition-free reception in January.

3. …Or your low-cost rerelease.

Disney used September—the other traditionally weak month in cinema—to test audiences' tolerance for 3D with a 3D rerelease of its animated classic The Lion King . That movie went on to become the highest-grossing film in September. Disney learned the lesson well; they're aiming to prop up a similarly lax box-office with The Beauty and The Beast 3D, which also opens this Friday. And this isn't the first time that studios have used January low wattage as a springboard for rereleases. George Lucas conquered the box office in 1997 with Star Wars: Special Edition, and this year's 3D reworking of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace is just missing the cutoff with a mid-February release date.

4. Keep your budgets—and your star power—low.

Two of the biggest January hits in recent history came in 2009: the Liam Neeson-starring revenge flick Taken and Kevin James's wacky Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Both films thrived, in part, because they were cheap to make: Neeson and James are well-liked actors, but not A-listers, and the price tags they commanded were accordingly lower. On an even smaller scale, low-budget parodies like Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans have been solid performers—in part, because they…

5. Play to the teen crowd.

As their parents spend the month catching up on awards-show fodder, many of January's biggest hits—She's All That, Save The Last Dance, and A Walk to Remember—have actively courted the teen market. The summer blockbuster season is the time for all-ages cinema; better to splinter the audience by focusing on the demographic with an excess of idle time in January.

6. And if all else fails: dump your excess baggage.

Each Hollywood studio plays a few bum cards every year, but January can also the cinematic equivalent of a "Get Out of Jail Free" card. In recent years, stinkers like Season of the Witch and Untraceable have been dumped into theaters with minimal marketing, to be ignored and swiftly forgotten by the time that Hollywood's most lackluster month draws to a close.