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Why Oscar Season Is Hollywood's Bad Movie Dumping Ground

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Feb 23, 2013 | 11:43am EST

Bad Winter Movies

The movie business, in many ways, functions in a similar fashion as does professional sports. Like sports, the year of movie releases is broken into seasons. The most important is obviously the summer blockbuster season, then the holiday season, which falls almost right in line with awards season. The months of January and February, on the other hand, are very much the off-season. These two months often represent a landfill of subpar films from which, if we’re lucky, we occasionally mine a few gems. Here, at the end of February, it has become frighteningly apparent that 2013 may be one of the worst early-year droughts to date. Could this be true?


We gathered a group of prominent writers, including C. Robert Cargill, screenwriter of 2012’s Sinister and former critic for Ain’t It Cool NewsWill Goss of Film.com, and Jeremy Kirk of FirstShowing.net, to try and get a foothold on the dearth of quality at the multiplex thus far:


Why is it that January and February is such a dumping ground?


Kirk: I’ve always assumed it’s because that’s when people aren’t going to movies, because they are going back to work and school after the holidays. This is the time when people talk about film festivals; Sundance and SxSW. 


Cargill: You get to see all the good stuff early, and by Christmas day you’ve seen pretty much everything. And after that it’s all dumping. The only people who are going to see movies at that time are over the age of thirty-five; who have savings accounts and weren’t tapped out by Christmas. That’s why Taken was such a hit and why Clint Eastwood movies tend to do so well in January. They are made for an audience that still has money. They release the Oscar bait movies, which play to that crowd, and then you just get this terrible sprinkling of crap. 


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Kirk: Not all movies released in January and February are inherently dumped. But with some of these movies…you can just tell. It’s a shotgun approach; there’s always going to be good movies and there’s always going to be bad movies. And yes, there are more bad movies at the beginning of the year, but I always go into a movie hoping for the best. 


How many films at this point this year did you thoroughly enjoy, which would you go to bat for?


Kirk: I would say there are two movies that have come out since the beginning of the year that I think are really solid, and that I would recommend people see. If the rest of the year is crappy, I could see Side Effects and Warm Bodies being in my top ten. 


Goss: Side Effects definitely, probably Warm Bodies, and probably Snitch. But that’s three out of, what, fifteen wide releases. 


Cargill: Having not seen Side Effects yet, and based on the films I have seen, I wouldn’t go to bat for any of them.


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Is it just us? Are we a subset of critics who are just being too hard on these movies or is it a widespread critical perception?


Goss: Looking at the Tomato Meter for wide releases post-January; Mama is at 60%, Side Effects is at 85%, Warm Bodies is at 78%. Everything else is rotten. 


Kirk: I think it’s the audience too. If you look at the box office, there isn’t one movie that has yet passed $100 million, and probably none of them will. Maybe Identity Thief, but that’s the only one that might have a chance. Last year, January/February, we had three movies that broke $100 million. You have to go back to 2008 to find a January/February that didn’t have at least one film that netted $100 million.


Is it always that the studios believe these movies are subpar, or is it just a function of fear and uncertainty?


Cargill: Well, look back at Chronicle last year. Fox had no idea whether it was going to work or not. 


Goss: I feel the same way about Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in August of 2011. They didn’t have a clue if they made something good for geeks and/or general audiences. 


Cargill: That’s true. They were scrambling to put screenings together in other markets at the last minute after the L.A. critics loved it. 


Goss: Chronicle was the same way; they scheduled that screening the same night as The Woman in Black. But again, right up until the week before, I don’t think Fox knew what they had. 


Speaking of The Woman in Black, it seems this time of the year has become the “other October.” So many studios releasing horror movies in January, and again quality is the exception and not the rule.


Goss: Ever since White Noise was a hit in 2005, that’s what started it. If you look back at every first weekend, besides expanding titles, the only new release is usually one crappy horror movie. 


Cargill: For years, horror movies made $19-20million in a January release. They would take the weekend and that would be it. But The Devil Inside proved that even in our worst dumping ground, you can appeal to a market that won’t see movies, and in fact that they’ll throw money at a terrible movie if it looks like it’s good. I mean, $35 million is sick money for an opening weekend for a film that cost, what, $250,000? 


Kirk: Looking at the January horror this year, Texas Chainsaw 3D was an obvious dump, especially considering how many times it got pushed back. 


Cargill, your movie Sinister was originally slated for January, no?


Cargill: Yeah. But we really wanted an October release and January, at the time, was piling up with too much horror, much of which was since reshuffled. Mama ended up on the weekend everyone was staking out. And it did quite well as a result.


Goss: Mama was the only PG-13 movie out in January, everything else was rated R. It’s the same reason movies like Escape from Planet Earth keep doing well. There hadn’t been a family film in theaters since Parental Guidance at Christmas. Even that made $70 million just by being there. 


Cargill: Some years it’s really bad and some years its good, and most years there’s one bright spot; at the very least you get a Cloverfield.


Kirk: Given how well Cloverfield did, I’m surprised J.J. Abrams didn’t go back to the January slot for other projects.


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But there again, Cloverfield was a gamble for the studio. That was released a year before Paranormal Activity so they weren’t sure this whole found footage thing was going to work. 


Cargill: It’s all gambling, and the minute anybody moves then everybody else starts shuffling around. I mean we ended up shifting our date for Sinister, what three weeks out? Everybody recognized what a huge monster hit Taken 2was going to be and knew we’d get swallowed whole. 


But clearly horror isn’t the only genre getting dumped. 


Kirk: I’m actually shocked that Die Hard, of all franchises, was moved to February. I thought that was such a weird choice. 


To me that speaks to both issues we were talking about earlier. It was the only franchise entry to not be released in the summer. They don’t even have confidence in a Die Hard movie this year, and rightfully so, because it was a disaster. 


Kirk: This year is really front-loaded with action movies. On top of Gangster Squad, Hansel and Gretel, and Snitch, we got new movies from Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Willis. Who would have thought Willis’ would be the worst?


Wow, three of the Expendables have new movies out in the first two months of the year.


Kirk: Four if you count Statham. 


Goss: Last year, Chronicle did well on Super Bowl weekend, which is usually unheard of because it’s Super Bowl weekend and they don’t go for male-skewing films. You put a Dear John there and it makes a killing. So that suggests that even then they can put something there that people would actually come out and see. Warm Bodies did alright, but that’s arguably more female-skewing; Bullet to the Head clearly didn’t. Identity Thief  made a ton of money and nobody goes to see Side Effects, so it’s give and take.


So what’s the consensus here? This year is bad, but not worse? 


Goss: I think by default of there not being The Grey and Haywire, this year is worse. Just compared strictly to last year, I haven’t seen anything I liked as much as The Grey. However, that’s more a statement that last year was an anomaly. 


Cargill: Yeah. I’ve seen some pretty lean years where everything is garbage. I’ve had years where it’s been six straight weeks of dreck until finally something halfway decent came out on Valentine’s Day. 


Kirk: There are little movies here and there that are well-placed in January and February. Steven Soderbergh always does well at the beginning of the year. But I agree that we’ve been more heavily inundated with mediocre to dreadful movies. 


Cargill: It’s a really rough year.


Goss: Which isn’t to say rougher than normal, it’s just that normal is pretty rough.


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