January-February are famous “dump months”; the time when the studios quietly release their share of dogs to little or no fanfare. And as the calendar shows, we have just entered the “dump” zone.
Big Studios hone in on two times of the year for their most creative release strategies; Summer and Winter Holidays. This means that both after school’s out in late May, and when families carve the bird in November, it’s an intense and bitter battle for box-office dominance. Come September and January, after school resumes, and potential award nominees are out, the refuse of the past year, either due to contractual obligations, or an older audience base, get dumped into theaters that screened hobbits and Christian Bale a month earlier.
There is actually a method to the madness behind the dumpage than just poisonous cargo jettison, which I like to call: The Rules of Dumpage.
While data reveals the audience baseline age shifts in January from 15 -25 to 35 – 55, there’s also a counter-release strategy that predicts audiences not interested in potential award nominees will be drawn to pop-culture fare. This, then, is Dumpage Rule number one: The Teenage Factor. 15 – 25 year olds looking for tasteless humor, gratuitous action and horror could care less about family fare, melodramas or (fantasy-less) period pieces, so while mature audiences are finishing off their potential award nom list, distributors pull in the teens using counter-programming.
Let’s first take a look at January releases for 2013 which included big names like All Superheroes Must Die, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Gangster Squad and the crown jewel; Movie 43 (worst reviewed film of the year). While these were the biggest of dogs, both box-office and critically, they were not all marketed with the idea that they wouldn’t do well. Hansel & Gretel’s advertising was specifically focused on teen boys (action) and girls (Jeremy Renner hot-ness). It would seem this rule failed, as the film pulled in just $54 million domestically. So why did Paramount start planning a sequel as early as a month later? Because internationally, it took an a $151 Million Box Office – and based on the film’s $50 million budget, that is a cash cow. So Hansel and Gretel was not proof of Rule Number One, but instead, Dumpage Rule Two: For International audiences, US release dates mean nothing.
More often than ever before, we’re seeing domestically produced films specifically targeting worldwide dollars. A Good Day to Die Hard had US interests barely on the radar. Big, bombastic and leaden, it had hardly any similarity to its originator, except character, actor and franchise name recognition. It would seem the script was written using a graph to hit the International “focus grouped” beats, and it worked. Dumped domestically in theaters mid-February, it struggled here, making only $67 Million (with a budget of $92 million) while Internationally, it exploded with a box-office take of $237 Million!
Meanwhile, back home, while Josh Brolin posed with a fedora and Halle Berry licked a child’s forehead, the little distributor that could, First Run Features, released Michael Apted’s documentary 56 Up, the eighth in his acclaimed series. A January release meant a different marketing model, with a plan focused on home video distribution.
The third rule, then, of Dumpage would be: Documentaries Are a Non-Issue. Studies prove that most Academy voters watch DVD screeners instead of going out to theaters, so come December, their mailboxes are jammed, not just with late season Oscar-baiters, but the past year’s art and documentary offerings. The current trend of simultaneously releasing documentary and art films on Pay-Per-View and theatres has proven to be a sound strategy; as the home viewers are an untapped commodity that historically wouldn’t venture out in the bigger cities or travel further to get to an Art House in smaller towns during Jan-Feb., but they’d be more than happy to watch (and pay) from home.
Then there are the “pushed” films; a mysterious and curious lot, that can be a mixed bag. Some quality, but smaller films, that were originally intended to be released during the holidays are determined, sometimes at the last minute, to have a greater chance at potential audiences in the leaner months, past the December gluttony. Quartet was a promising little film, directed by Dustin Hoffman, with an original release date set for December 2012. But its distributor, The Weinstein Company, focused their Oscar dollar machine on Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained. They wisely pushed Quartet’s release into February (then actually viewing it – pushed it again to March) so it could get a piece of that “over 35” audience. This brings us to the Fourth Rule of Dumpage: Distributors don’t put their Oscar-baits in one basket. Distribution geniuses like the Weinsteins know well to spread the releases and ad money throughout the year evenly, so although the company may look at all their “children” with an eye towards quality, the ones with the higher award potential get the main flux of focus in Nov-Dec., with a follow-up of wider releases for these same heavy-hitters come January.
But also within the “pushed” films are the troublemakers. These are the ones that “coulda shoulda” been released earlier, but due to some production or post problems, couldn’t make their planned dates. So it’s not unusual to sit next to your industry-savvy friend at the movies, and hear them suck in air when the trailer finishes off with an “Opening February” warning label. They know it smells trouble.
Now let’s put my “rules” to the test by looking toward this January 2014’s potential releases. Just after the first week of the year, we had Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones already in second place at the Box Office (action/horror), and the rest of the month seeing Lone Survivor (Mark Walhlberg war film), The Legend of Hercules (action fest), I, Frankenstein (action fest) and Ride Along (goofy comedy) coming out. These then fit snugly under Rule Number One: Counter-Strategy. But what about a big blockbuster like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit? At first glimpse, it would seem that this is the perfect summer blockbuster. Why not wait until June 2014? Although it “sports” a younger, more “teen friendly” protagonist (Chris Pine), it also has the built-in franchise reliability of something like A Good Day to Die Hard. I predict, then, it will be short on story, and big on data proven action. Jack Ryan will then work under Rule Number Two: International.
January also includes the release of documentaries Divorce Corps and Tim’s Vermeer; an indictment of the family court system and an investigation into Vermeer’s mysterious painting style, respectively, filling out Rule Number Three: Documentaries.
Labor Day, starring Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet was originally meant as a December release, but has been pushed to end of January. Could this be Rule Number Four: a gem of a film that its distributor, Paramount, determined would not be able to stand up against the December gluttony, as well as competing for their other Oscar pedigreed contenders: Nebraska and The Wolf of Wall Street? Perhaps, but recent info shows Labor Day is still in post-production, which very well could mean it was pushed for being a troublemaker?
My big question, then, is where does The Monuments Men fit in? Directed by and starring George Clooney, this period “heist” film has a cast to drool over: Bill Murray, John Goodman, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett. Why then, was this baiter-of-Oscar pushed from a December to February release? The official word is that post-production is still working on “perfecting” special effects. Your guess is as good as mine: Will it be a pushed dog, or a hidden gem? Time will tell.