In an ideal cultural environment, any film would be able to find the audience it deserves and the audience that wants to find it. In reality, any number of factors — chiefly the whims of studios and the effectiveness of movie marketing — can undermine a film’s impact commercially, critically and among spectators and the culture-at-large. Around year-end time, many will talk about movies they saw in the preceding 12 months that they felt were forgotten or underserved, that didn’t receive the attention they should have. And there’s no more fertile ground for movies like that than the frigid month of January.
The truth is, often January films have qualities that many different audiences appreciate, and if they were properly marketed, they could succeed. The idea that all that matters is the movie — that a successful movie will succeed no matter what month it comes out — is misguided and naïve.
For a long time now, January has come to be understood, by studios and by audiences, as a dumping ground. Putting aside various Oscar baiting films that open in limited release in December and then go wide in January, the first month of every year inevitably feels like a dead zone after the rush of fall movies, both small and large. We are faced with the leftovers, biding time in the harsh winter months before things can get moving again in February, and especially by March. But why are these movies left behind? What determines their fate? And are they truly all that bad?
In many cases, January becomes a place for studios to release genre films, and especially ones they aren’t confident in. For example, in 2012, Open Road Films decided to market the Liam Neeson vehicle The Grey — a film about a man stranded in Alaska being hunted by wolves — by aligning their advertising with Christian groups, highlighting the film’s spiritual elements, and also with (of all things) The Weather Network, due to the difficult snowy filming conditions. It paid off: the film, which the studio was nervous about, managed to gross $77 million.
An even better example is Michael Mann’s 2015 cyber-thriller Blackhat. It is a rather confounding film, but very entertaining and well-crafted. As Deadline reported at the time, “the film wasn’t helped by a marketing campaign that failed to convey a sophisticated plot and a romance… Blackhat instead chased a young audience with action footage that did not seem fresh.” Compared with the patriotic action in the marketing for American Sniper, which came out the same weekend, Blackhat didn’t stand a chance, and marketing to teens (as many January films tend to do) was a mistake. So it bombed, like many a January film before it.
Similarly, it would be understandable if you had no idea that Gavin O’Connor, the director of 2016’s hit thriller The Accountant, actually had another movie come out last year: the western Jane Got a Gun. Starring Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton, the film made only $3 million on a $25 million budget. Its fate was sealed partly because it was difficult to sell, but mostly due to industry drama and production woes. O’Connor was also not the original director, replacing Lynne Ramsay, and casting went through many changes — Edgerton was originally set to play the villain, not the ex-lover. And as Jane’s release date was bumped from August of 2014(!) to February of 2015 and then to September, one of its initial distributors filed for bankruptcy, leaving the Weinstein Company to eventually acquire full rights and set a final date for January 29, 2016. You can imagine the studio thinking, after all that, “Just get rid of it.”
It’s not unusual that a troubled production history results in a last-ditch effort January release. Essentially, studios are tired of the trouble and just want to be finished with the project. This is also true of projects that are greenlit by one executive and are seen through by another when the original is fired or moves on — they don’t have the same connection that the work, so the project can suffer.
I say all this to point out how crucial industry politics and maneuvering are to a film’s success. In some ways, these failures are self-fulfilling prophecies when the projects are mishandled or extensively troubled. Just because a studio or distributor doesn’t know what to do with a movie, doesn’t mean the audience won’t know what to do with it or that the movie must necessarily be impenetrable or lacking in value. But unfortunately, by placing a movie like Jane Got a Gun in January and not having its studio’s full confidence behind it, the film was a failure, partly because filmgoers had preconceptions about its quality (if they knew about it at all).
Moreover, January films are routinely plagued by discrimination based on genre, and based on perceived demographic. This January alone sees the release of genre sequels like Underworld: Blood Wars, xXx: Return of Xander Cage and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, as well as the requisite horror flicks with The Bye Bye Man and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split.
Every film in the Underworld franchise other than the original has been released in January. And this year’s release is especially interesting, because Blood Wars has already been released in many countries, including in Russia in November and in Australia in December. But in the United States, we got it this past weekend, while the UK gets it in February. It seems that there is a rather American-specific association of not only this franchise and January, but also this type of film and the month of January. It may seem silly, but there remains an attitude of looking down on genre movies like Underworld, the so-called mindless entertainment of Hollywood, and the US has a general understanding that January is when to expect that kind of “unserious” film.
But don’t get it twisted: this is a direct result of studio interference in what they think audiences want, and we continue to fall for it. The going idea about how this happens is that everyone is spending less money after the holidays, so the January dump zone occurs due to economic concerns. This may play some role, but these are typically movies that the studios want to release with as little fanfare as possible, movies they don’t like and movies they don’t understand or feel hurt their brand. So over the last few decades, this kind of manipulation has impacted audience expectations so that spectators act according to the release schedule studios want, so that reactions (and thus, profit) are more predictable.
If properly marketed and handled by distributors, these films would stand a much better chance of not only financial success, but also cultural impact. Moreover, this January tradition is further flawed because many of these movies are simply much better than the box office numbers or Rotten Tomatoes scores suggest. Especially in recent years, genre fare in the summer and fall have huge budgets and are generally more watered-down and play it safe as a result. With more money involved, studios are even less interested in taking risks or allowing themselves to feel less than absolutely confident about something. Many January films, by contrast, have smaller budgets and are more likely to be left to their own creative devices (in this way and others, the January phenomenon parallels the “Friday night death slot” for television). This freedom frequently results in some interesting and innovative genre films, no doubt imperfect but far more impressive than otherwise thought.
Think of Steven Soderbergh’s no-nonsense action film Haywire (2012), with clean editing and a lack of CGI that would be present in a similar but higher-budgeted action film. Think of John Dies at the End (2013), a thoroughly incoherent but astoundingly lively sci-fi comedy. Think of The Mothman Prophecies (2002), an otherwise mediocre horror film brought to new life by Mark Pellington’s direction and Fred Murphy’s idiosyncratic cinematography. Think of From Dusk till Dawn (1996), think of Mama (2013). Think of Cloverfield (2008). Flawed films all, but they’re doing something unique and something that most Hollywood genre films don’t do: think bigger, and think sideways. There are other ways of doing things, ways that the studios don’t understand because the audience doesn’t know it wants it, not yet.
This liberation to experiment within genre confines not only balks at the very notion of genre and its conventions, but also challenges the studio system and its structural dominance. The fact that so many of these films fail because they are presumed to underwhelm means that they are, in essence, controlled catastrophes. Why throw your weight behind something you never really believed in? As summer blockbusters become more and more palatable and homogenous, it’s refreshing to have movies that have similar stories but more expansive ideas of how they should be told. They won’t all be winners; some will be fascinating failures, and that’s okay.
January can be a great time for movies, just like any other month. There are pleasures to be found in these films that you are unlikely to find elsewhere, and subverting studio expectations is the best way to make them to wake up to transforming audiences and their demands. So while there is no guarantee that the latest Underworld or Resident Evil will be medium-defining masterpieces, or that M. Night Shyamalan’s latest will be his return to grace, you can be rest assured that they will be taking chances. And isn’t that what we want from our cinema?
Jake Pitre is a freelance writer with Polygon, and has been published at Hazlitt, Movie Mezzanine, Vague Visages and elsewhere. He is a graduate student in Film Studies at Carleton University, working on a thesis about Steven Universe and identity.