With every passing year, the moviegoing calendar inches closer to being subsumed by the twin titans of blockbuster season, when studios trot out their priciest and most specially effected franchise breadwinners, and awards season, when the prestige pictures arrive to return a bit of dignity — and hopefully some golden hardware — to those same studios. The dividing lines have been sliding progressively outward over the past decade, to the point where early April marks the first rumbling of superhero mayhem and the starter’s pistol for the mad Oscar dash is fired at the outset of September.
This expansion is a cause for concern. If these two seasons continue to bloat, they could threaten to eclipse the greatest moviegoing time of all: the wilds of January, February, and early March.
Conventional Hollywood wisdom has unfairly branded these months as the movie calendar’s no-man’s-land, but closer inspection reveals them to be the most richly varied and unpredictable time to hit the theater. There’s a lot to appreciate, and even when the grab bag yields a dud, it’s usually a more memorable failure than most. The beginning of the year is the unheralded sweet spot of moviegoing, where oddities can infiltrate unsuspecting neighborhood multiplexes.
The season’s reputation as a dumping ground overlooks the nature of movie distribution models
The popular consensus, founded in industry common sense and box office math, looks down on January and February as a toxic swamp for new releases. When distributors push a buzzy release from a date in October or November to shortly after the new year, that’s a red flag that they’ve got a stinker on their hands, know it, and would like to bury it where it can do minimal damage.
The perennial post-holiday dip in movie attendance makes it the perfect dumping ground for properties that studios don’t want to waste valuable summer real estate or advertising dollars on. Stakes are lower in January: The all-time highest opening weekend for a January release belongs to American Sniper with $89 million, a paltry sum compared with that June’s staggering $208 million from Jurassic World, May’s $207 million from The Avengers, or The Force Awakens’ mind-boggling $247 million take in December.
This perception of January and February as a time to catch your breath and pass on new movies is off base, however, so long as audiences are willing to look closer and keep an open mind.
For one, staggered distribution models mean that for many viewing markets, January and February reap the best films that December had to offer. Studios will often usher well-regarded releases into hasty limited runs in New York and Los Angeles in December so that they may qualify for that year’s awards consideration, and then gradually expand to theaters across the rest of America in the following weeks.
It can be maddening for movie lovers not living on either coast, but the vast majority of viewers have been made to wait weeks for such critical darlings as Martin Scorsese’s virtuosic religious epic Silence, Jim Jarmusch’s low-key existential sestina Paterson, Mike Mills’s period piece (pun intended) 20th Century Women, or the righteous, barrier-breaker Hidden Figures. And then there are the movies that get PR bumps from Oscar nominations in late January and go into rerelease or wider release, trickling down from the metropolitan areas to chain cinemas in smaller communities.
Kindly reviewed festival favorites from the previous year also tend to roost in these early weeks, enjoying the lessened competition that comes with a slightly sparser slate. After bouncing between private engagements for months, films that have been raved about in early reviews and on social media finally become available to the general public of cinephiles.
For example, this January sees the rollouts of some highlights from the Cannes 2016 class: Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake take its anti-bureaucracy screed to American shores, the enigmatic Staying Vertical will debut to inevitably bewildered domestic audiences, and Iranian master Asghar Farhadi returns with his searing The Salesman. The tenderhearted Japanese family drama After the Storm arrives in February, and Kristen Stewart goes arthouse once again with Olivier Assayas’s beguiling ghost story Personal Shopper in March. And from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival come the essential James Baldwin bio-doc I Am Not Your Negro and Ben Wheatley’s lunatic shoot-’em-up Free Fire.
The beginning of the year is also prime season for genre movies, especially horror
This presumed scheduling wasteland also provides a valuable haven for the oft-underappreciated genre film, which tends to be suffocated by higher-profile releases later on in the year. Horror, smaller-scale action, sci-fi, and outliers of other sorts (like the Coen brothers’ madcap Tinseltown comedy Hail, Caesar, which brightened up last winter) flourish in the early months, when curious viewers will be more likely to give something off the beaten path of star vehicles a shot.
It was just last February that the rigorously designed scary story The Witch introduced American filmmaking to its newest prince of horror, Robert Eggers, and this year’s offerings are poised to dwarf 2016. And at present, the horror genre in particular is staring down what could be the most fruitful season for original, creator-driven visions in years.
An embarrassment of terrifying riches has converged on the first couple of months in 2017. It begins this week with M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, which drew atypically positive reviews for the director out of its Fantastic Fest premiere, and James McAvoy appears to be having a blast in the trailer for the psycho-horror creepshow.
Shortly thereafter comes Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness, a handsome-looking cross between In the Mouth of Madness and Shutter Island. (Around this same time, audiences in the UK will get a release of Prevenge, the homicidal fetus movie we’ll all hopefully be gawking at later this year.) And that still leaves the combo race satire/surreal horrorshow — and the directorial debut of Key and Peele’s Jordan Peele — Get Out, the hotly anticipated zombie flick The Girl With All the Gifts, the all-woman anthology picture XX, and the long-awaited gothic chiller The Blackcoat’s Daughter.
Even the season’s bad movies tend to be more interesting than the rest of the year’s bad movies
It would be disingenuous to pretend that January and February are entirely free of the turkeys that have come to be associated with the mid- to late winter. The weeks to come will undoubtedly bring us some bad movies, and not even bad in a faintly redemptive way, or bad in the way that’s rebranded as “misunderstood” a few years down the line. We’ll never truly forgive January 2016 for Dirty Grandpa, as well we shouldn’t. But the complex nature of what defines a “bad movie” is the key to the unfairly maligned season’s reputation.
January and February regularly host films that draw lukewarm-to-negative reviews — and perhaps rightly so — but, as flawed expressions of their idiosyncratic creators, still deserve to be watched. These are your Blackhats, your Jupiter Ascendings — the Wachowski sisters’ space opera being a perfect exemplar of this phenomenon. The movie is messy, incoherent, and at times patently ridiculous. But those are all also instrumental aspects of its overall charm; the sheer enormity of the Wachowskis’ vision commands admiration, and the sillier parts fit in with their “cyberpunk 4 Non Blondes music video” aesthetic. It’s indulgent, but to call it “bad” would be reductive.
The open expanses of the early months allow for more specific sorts of films that can afford to cater to more specific tastes. This is where the cult favorites of tomorrow can have room to breathe and amass a following. Don’t be surprised if movie geeks still hold 10 Cloverfield Lane (released March 11, 2016) near and dear 10 years from now.
Even some of the season’s more unambiguously bad movies still have more incidental appeal than the megabudget disasters of summer. Soul-deadening releases like 2016’s Suicide Squad or Batman v Superman felt focus-grouped to death, as if all the spontaneity and personality had been mechanically siphoned out. In contrast, the releases orphaned during the current season challenge the audience to ponder how they even came into being; this is the depth of their spectacular miscalculation.
For example: Say what you will about last year’s Gods of Egypt (“utter nonsense,” “hamstrung by gratuitous, bizarre CGI,” and “full of white people” would all be valid criticisms), but watching space god Geoffrey Rush command a computer-generated slug made of clouds to eat the sun every dawn or whatever the hell might have been going on there — that stays with a person.
If a movie is going to be awful, the least it can do is have the decency to be awful in a way that is fascinating, or amusing in spite or itself, or just endearing in its sincerity. The reviews for the new family film Monster Trucks, for example, do not inspire confidence. But watching the movie, it’s apparent that someone, somewhere along the line, truly believed in the concept of a monster that lives inside a truck’s engine. There’s something sort of beautiful about that.
From bad-movie connoisseurs to cutting-edge cinephiles who don’t live on the coasts, there are certain types of moviegoers who live for the alleged dead space of January and February. The holiday movie season has hit like a massive meteorite, wiping out all the big-budget dinosaurs and leaving the weird little cinematic mammals to come out of the underbrush.
It may not have the nuance and prestige of awards season or the raw filmmaking firepower of blockbuster season, but Everything Else Season is even more precious, offering something increasingly rare: a time when audiences can still be genuinely surprised at the movies. Viewers can walk into a cineplex cold and walk out with a wild-eyed warning for their friends, a new so-bad-it’s-astonishing guilty pleasure, or a lifelong favorite they never saw coming.