The Wedding Ringer. The Boy Next Door. Mortdecai, for crying out loud. If there seem to be a lot of oddball movies this January, it’s not your imagination. It’s been this way for at least the past 15 years.
When American Sniper shattered box office records last weekend, it challenged the conventional wisdom that January is where movies go to die. For years, studios have heaved a sigh of post-prestige relief by releasing movies of a decidedly less Oscar-friendly caliber this month. It’s the exact opposite of people flocking to the gym after New Years to work off winter weight; movie studios instead loosen their belts and let it all hang out. Does American Sniper’s unheard-of success bode a changing of the tides? No, it doesn’t. In fact, it’s not even an exception proving a rule. That film had the standard limited release over Christmas to qualify for Oscar contention, and blew up when it went wide. Much more typical of what January so often brings to the table are thoroughbred curios like Mortdecai, the most January movie in some time and an epic flop of the kind that inspires earnest concern contemplating the poisoned decision tree that led to something like this getting made.
That’s right, in addition to being a mere month, “January” is cinematic shorthand that describes a certain kind of concoction. It might mean an A-list star paired with a Z-grade premise. It might mean an ensemble cast of folks who look like they can’t stand being in a room together. It could be a bloodless horror movie, a romantic comedy whose plot hinges on literal magic, an action-packed fairy tale remix, or a Jason Statham vehicle. They’re the movies that haunt the darker corridors of HBO Go and Netflix, and populate Sunday afternoon marathons on TNT. Like pornography, you simply know them when you see them—and Mortdecai, with its third-runner-up-in-the-Grand Budapest Hotel-Halloween-contest aesthetic, you could see coming a mile away.
Mortdecai and its above-mentioned January brethren are just the latest in a deep roster of ridiculousness. The past 15 years have been full of such misfit movies, as you can see below in the data set Co.Create has compiled, alongside critical consensus scores from Rotten Tomatoes.
Why are so many of these little-loved kookaburras released in January? It’s tough to say conclusively. The big budget blow-’em-ups and crowd-pleasing comedies are summertime stuff, while Oscarbait starts being chummed after October. That leaves six months in the year besides January in which to slate hard-to-sell loss-leaders–and yet so many end up here.
None of the 25 highest grossing films of all time were released in January. The same goes for IMDb’s 25 highest rated movies ever. In order to further illustrate the anything-goes quality endemic to January films, let’s take a look at a control group, so to speak. Below you will find a chart that reveals how many fewer January-style movies have been released in the uneventful month of April since the year 2000.
In the last 15 years, April has had a major shortage of Kangaroo Jack-style head scratchers, no Underworld sequels to speak of, and dangerously low quantities of Jason Statham. It’s certainly had its share of eccentric and inexplicable films, but nowhere near the degree found in the first month of the year. Just because American Sniper is doing Avengers numbers right now, the pattern seems unlikely to change. It need not be bad news for moviegoers, filmmakers, or studios, however; instead, we could all start to embrace it.
Screenwriters: pitch your high-concept space-Nazi adventure as “a real January kind of movie.” Studios: rebrand the Black List-graduates you currently have no idea what to do with by touting their very January-ness in the marketing materials. Make this your month of challenging, small, dark dramas, and consider it January-counterprogramming. And for everyone else: just keep going to the movies during wintertime, and be aware that you are rolling the dice. Jason Statham’s new movie Wild Card comes out this weekend, has a premise I couldn’t begin to explain in a few sentences, and co-stars Sofia Vergara, Stanley Tucci, Anne Heche, and the kid from Almost Famous. (No, the other kid.) It will either be the worst movie of the year or it will be amazing. Either way, you probably will not be bored.
Until then, let us know what January movies we may have missed, and which ones are your favorites, in the comments below.