The winter of our discontent
We'll answer the question posed by the headline right off the bat: yes. Conventional wisdom has it that January is a dumping ground for poor-quality films, and our numbers back that up. There are a number of reasons for the lack of successful movies early in the year, including:
- The competition: The December release schedule is packed with a large number of releases to capitalize on the holidays. Big-budget films released toward the end of the year continue to play into January, and award-seeking films that receive an Academy-qualifying limited release in December frequently expand nationwide in January. As a result, the studios avoid competing directly with these movies by releasing a smaller number of films, typically in niche genres.
- The timing: Similarly, any potentially great movie that is ready to go by January will either get moved up into December, or delayed until spring or later in the year, in order to better capture the attention of award voters. You can't expect Academy members to remember all the way back to January, can you?
- The weather: A month potentially filled with blizzards and bad weather is not the time you want to be releasing your $200-milliion mass-appeal special effects blockbuster. It's best to save those for a month when moviegoers can actually make it to theaters.
Unfortunately for movie fans, the other winter months aren't significantly better in terms of quality. While the numbers do improve in February -- and even more so in March -- the percentage of good movies remains small compared to the total number of wide releases, as we shall see below.
Examining the numbers: January is the cruelest month
First, let's look at some totals for all major releases from the past decade.
Total Wide Release Films by Month of Release, 2000-09
As indicated above, January does indeed have both a low number of quality films (just six of 88 January movies from the past decade scored 61 or higher) and a low number of commercial hits (just two films grossing more than $100 million at the box office). In fact, January has a low number of releases -- period --when compared to the other winter months.
Things do start to pick up a bit in February, and even more so in March, a trend that can also be noted by looking at the median Metascores for each month.
Monthly Median Metascores for Wide Release Films, by Year
There appears to be an ever so slight uptick in quality (assuming the Metascore is a proxy for film quality) for all months over the course of the decade, but none of the months seem all that impressive, and out of the three winter months, March typically finishes on top in terms of the quality of films. We can see that even more clearly as we look at the decade-wide medians and score distributions:
|Median||Low / High Scores||Score Distribution|
|January Releases||38.5||9 / 73||9,30,38.5,49,73|
|February Releases||41.0||11 / 80||11,32,41,50,80|
|March Releases||44.5||7 / 89||7,34,44.5,56,89|
Let's look more closely at the breakdown between good, average, and bad films by month of release:
|January Releases||February Releases||March Releases|
That tiny sliver of green for January releases is not a good sign; it means that finding a good movie in theaters in January is about as likely as finding a pair of Super Bowl tickets in your wallet. Even worse is that just over half (51%) of all January releases in the past decade were simply bad movies in the eyes of critics.
That percentage of bad movies decreases, and the percentage of good movies increases, as we get deeper into the year. Here is a more detailed breakdown, splitting the "green" and "red" movies into two categories apiece, based on their Metascores.
|Critics LOVED ...|| 0% of Jan. releases
|| 0% of Feb. releases
||2% of Mar. releases|
|Critics LIKED ...||7%|| 10%
|Critics HAD MIXED FEELINGS about ...||42%||43%||43%|
|Critics DISLIKED ...||42%||42%||33%|
|Critics HATED ...||9%||5%||4%|
So while there has not been a truly great movie (according to the critical consensus) in January or February for at least ten years, it is possible to find one in March. Make that two: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 89 (March 2004) and Dave Chappelle's Block Party 84 (March 2006). Coincidentally -- or not -- both films are directed by Michel Gondry. But the innovative French director doesn't have a perfect winter success rate; critics found his February 2008 comedy Be Kind Rewind 52 a step backward.
Even if there are no great movies in January, there have been a smattering of commercial and/or critical successes during the month. What are they? We examine a few of them on the next page, and see what's in store for 2010.