A quick glance at the January box office tells us something we can already intuit. Nobody sees movies in January. Here's the handy chart via Box Office Mojo:
Largest Opening Weekends by Month, Ranked:
May: "The Avengers" - $207 million
July: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two" - $169 million
March: "The Hunger Games" - $152 million
November: "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" - $142 million
June: "Toy Story 3" - $110 million
April: "Fast Five" - $86 million
December: "The Hobbit" - $84 million
February: "The Passion of the Christ" - $83 million
August: "The Bourne Ultimatum" - $69 million
October: "Paranormal Activity 3" - $52 million
September: "Hotel Transylvania" - $42 million
January: "Cloverfield" - $40 million
So what's the deal? Why don't people head to the movies in January?
Back to School
You'll also note in the chart above that September is a traditionally weaker month, coming on the heels of the summer blockbusters but prior to the buzzy Oscar contenders. January and September also have one other commonality — they are both smack dab in the middle of the times young persons head back to school. Everyone is getting back into the groove after having copious amounts of free time at their disposal, and families are no longer headed out to see a movie on weeknights, cutting the box office results by three to four entire days. Finally, money is being spent on tuition and school supplies, leaving family films out in the cold, though it's the one time of the year horror films have to shine. Speaking of horror ...
Holiday Shopping Regret
Did you spend a little too much money on Aunt Milly? Are you glancing at that credit card statement with more than a twinge of worry? You're not alone; most of us spend excessively during the holidays, only to get back to belt-tightening once the bills come due. The holiday season is also a time of big gatherings, more eating out and taking advantage of the multitude of sales. Basically, December is way overheated financially, leaving only scraps for January films. Studios know this, so they generally keep their quality films in reserve. If you do see a "good" movie in January, it's either an accident or an Oscar contender that was in limited release in December, expanding wider in January.
The Academy Push
This weekend "Zero Dark Thirty" will play in 2,400 theaters, up from 60 theaters last weekend. As you can see, 2,400 is far more than 60, and it should allow "Zero Dark Thirty" to easily capture the weekend crown. Though this sort of thing shouldn't matter to Academy voters, it absolutely does, and it makes the box office story about "momentum" and "surges," not new releases. Movies such as "Gangster Squad" and "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" become afterthoughts because the biggest awards in moviedom are the focal point of every industry conversation.
The Movies Hollywood is Ashamed Of
Lastly, because of the above three factors, studios know January is as good a place as any to "take out the trash" and hide the mistakes. "Gangster Squad" was moved from its original September release date, and then re-shot and re-edited. While one of the factors behind this decision was a sketchy scene involving a movie theater being shot up and the release date's proximity to the Aurora shootings, the sum conclusion has to be that no one still believes in "Gangster Squad." Its ability to generate money is now dubious, so it gets sent to January detention. Simply put, January is where they put the ones they're ashamed of.
Could this all change? Would "Avengers 3: Even More Vengeful" be better off dominating the landscape for a few months? Potentially, yes. If a studio made a concerted marketing effort, and the film was already part of an established franchise, the people would come, even in January. For precedent, look no further than March, where three of the top four films were released within the last three years. March is now a place you can reasonably expect quality (or at least interesting) cinema, and that wasn't the case historically. But for now, January remains the whipping boy of the calendar, a place where we can pretty much only catch up on Oscar contenders. Hey, maybe catch a few more naps — heaven knows the creative forces that bring you the movies certainly are!