The Nightmare After Christmas: Are January Movies Really That Bad?

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  • Publish Date: January 5, 2010

The winter of our discontent

ImageWinter kills

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

Films are grouped by the month they first opened in theaters; movies that opened as limited releases in previous months and subsequently expanded wide are excluded. Films in limited release, re-releases, and films receiving fewer than 7 reviews are also excluded. A wide release film is one that screens at more than 600 theaters. Good Releases are films receiving a Metascore of at least 61 out of 100, indicating generally positive reviews from top professional critics. Major Box Office Hits are films with theatrical grosses of at least $100 million in the United States. Source for box office data: Box Office Mojo.

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

The Metascore is a weighted average of scores from top professional critics, on a scale from 0 (bad) to 100 (good).

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:

Metascore Distributions for Wide Releases by Month of Release, 2000-09
  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

In the score distribution charts, half of all scores (from the 25th percentile to the 75th percentile) fall within the shaded box, with the vertical line in the middle of the box representing the median.

Let's look more closely at the breakdown between good, average, and bad films by month of release:

Quality Breakdown by Month of Release for all Wide Releases from 2000-09
January Releases February Releases March Releases
7,42,51 10,43,47 20,43,37

The size of each circle is proportional to the total number of releases for that month over the past decade. Green represents positively-reviewed films (Metascore of 61 or higher). Yellow represents films receiving mixed or average reviews (40-60). Red represents negatively-reviewed films (0-39).

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.

  January February March
Critics LOVED ... 0% of Jan. releases
0% of Feb. releases
2% of Mar. releases
Critics LIKED ... 7% 10%
18%
Critics HAD MIXED FEELINGS about ... 42% 43% 43%
Critics DISLIKED ... 42% 42% 33%
Critics HATED ... 9% 5% 4%

LOVED represents a Metascore of 81-100; LIKED = 61-80; MIXED FEELINGS = 40-60; DISLIKED = 20-39, and HATED = 0-19. The percentages are for all major films released during the indicated months between 2000 and 2009.

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.

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Comments (5)

  • Marko  

    I'm kind of curious as to how these winter ratings compare witht he average scores for major releases in August/September, which I've often found can also be dumping ground for releases of lesser quality.

  • Marc Doyle  

    Whenever a high profile movie gets pushed out of Nov/Dec into Jan/Feb, I get worried. One recent film I had high hopes for was Shelter Island, but as a Feb 19 release? It tempered my enthusiasm.

  • aaa  

    why would January movies be any good? Any good movie would squeeze itself in 1 month earlier and open during the holidays, during which there are far more people going to theatres. The terrible movies that would only sell tickets when there's nothing better on, get released after the holidays.

  • Kefka  

    That's funny, I almost never go to the movies in late November-December. As a former HS student and current college student, that's exam season. I normally go in January-February, since classes have just started up, then again in May-June.

  • Man About It  

    I can understand the slow winter numbers due to the through the week crowd being busy at work & school + staying home for good TV, but Friday night will always be date night, and with movies basically being the no-brainer thing to do even above restaurants, you'd think the studios would schedule decent fare to lead the pack every month

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