The winter sucks, movie-wise. The first three months of the year have traditionally been used as a dumping ground for studio movies that weren’t deemed of a high enough calibre to crack the summer or Christmas seasons.
Maybe they’re just a little too offbeat for a large, general audience. Or maybe the film was just bad, and January was the best time to release for fear of major competition at any other time.
You won’t see a lot of big box office releases in the dead winter months. With the exception of teens, movie goers don’t watch a lot of films when the weather turns cold: According to Slate Magazine, February ranks as the worst month for movie attendance. It also ranks as the month with the lowest-rated movies – with a Rotten Tomatoes average rating of just 45 out of 100. That’s 3 points lower than second last, which is January.
But wait. If the studios only release their awful movies in winter, doesn’t it follow that movie-goers wouldn’t show up to watch them? Isn’t the whole thing a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Despite its status as a movie dead zone, January to March have occasionally produced some notable successes over the years. These high quality films, perhaps under-estimated by their studios, took advantage of the season’s lack of competition and teen-friendly atmosphere and rode it to box office and critical success. Heck, a few of these even won Oscars, forcing studios to reconsider their traditional feelings about the winter months. The following are the fifteen best ‘dead zone’ movies in cinematic history.
15. Chronicle (2012)
This found-footage superhero fable pulled in more than $120 million worldwide despite an early February release.
A sci-fi thriller aimed at teens, the flick took advantage of the lack of big budget fare at that time of year to win the Super Bowl weekend at the box office. A sequel is planned, and that too will be eyeing a winter release.
14. Taken (2009)
This one turned actor Liam Neeson into a perhaps unlikely action movie star with its breathless revenge tale.
It set a January record, earning $145 million that month (and $225 million overall), making it the highest-grossing January flick ever. Coupled with the success of the comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Taken forced studios to rethink their whole winter blues approach to movie releases. Neeson stuck with the winter release approach with 2011’s The Grey.
13. Hostel (2005)
Along with the endless Saw series, this film helped spearhead the loathsome ‘torture p*rn’ trend in movies. The European-set flick is better than most imitators but still undeniably difficult to watch. But it was the classic example of a low budget horror movie taking advantage of the January lull in big budget fare. Made for less than $5 million, it earned more than $80 million worldwide, and has resulted in two sequels and a whole lot of nightmares.
12. Zodiac (2007)
This moody mystery/thriller from David Fincher (Fight Club) remains one of the best films of that year or any year. Yet it received not one Oscar nomination, while movies like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood cleaned up. That’s right – not even a technical nomination.
It’s March 2nd release would seem to have had a lot to do with it. Voters would have had to remember the film for nearly a full year. Which is too bad. The film is now considered a classic, with fine performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo.
11. Waiting For Guffman (1997)
A comedy gem from January 1997, this film failed to earn back its modest $4 million budget despite ecstatic reviews. Of course, director Christopher Guest’s behind-the-scenes chronicle of a small town musical was probably never going to be a huge hit. It’s just too off-beat for that. So perhaps the less competitive late January release was the best option. No matter. The film earned a much larger audience on DVD, and helped cement Guest’s status as a cult comedy hero.
10. The Wedding Singer (1998)
Comedies often thrive in winter, when the competition is usually just serious, leftover Oscar hopefuls. And it’s not like an Adam Sandler movie is ever Oscar bait. Of course, it helped that this eighties romcom was one of the comic’s quieter, better efforts. For one thing, it actually had a plot. And a rapping granny.
Though it failed to top Titanic in its first week of release, the $18 million comedy would eventually earn over $120 million at the box office. Sandler’s company, Happy Madison Productions, would score big a decade later with the January release Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
9. The Godfather (1972)
This classic was an accidental winter release. Originally, it was scheduled to hit theatres in time for Christmas. But the studio liked what they were seeing, so they allowed director Francis Ford Coppola more time to re-edit a much-longer version. It worked.
The film was a blockbuster, becoming the highest earning movie of that year (and of any year, till Jaws came along). It also won Best Picture, becoming one of those rare winter releases (including Silence of The Lambs) to garner Oscar attention.
8. Silence of The Lambs (1991)
A real rarity – a February movie that not only won an Oscar for Best Picture, but Oscars in all five major categories (Picture/Director/Lead Actor/Lead Actress/Adapted Screenplay). It also made a tonne of money, both in its first weekend ($14 million) and the year. Horror movies have proven to be solid hits in the winter months but this was a phenomena that also earned money and the respect of critics and award shows.
7. Cloverfield (2008)
A low budget, ‘found footage’ monster movie that became (briefly) the biggest film ever released in January with $40 million on its first weekend alone. Part of that was due to a clever viral campaign months in advance that included a teaser trailer with no title.
Another part of the success was due to a huge initial release (over 3000 theaters) that was unprecedented for the winter. And maybe, just maybe, its success was due to its being one seriously scary horror movie.
6. 21 Jump Street (2012)
March is a tricky month that’s less predictable than January and February. In the case of this film adaptation, low expectations surrounded the project long before its March release. Too many bad film adaptations of old TV shows had poisoned moviegoers’ minds and expectations.
Critics and moviegoers were pleasantly surprised when the undercover cop film turned out to be really pretty good. And funny. And without much in the way of competition on its opening weekend, 21 Jump Street earned an impressive $35 million its first weekend, going on to become one of the biggest films of the year, and generating a sequel.
5. The Hunger Games (2012)
This film may have been bullet-proof, as it was based on a hugely popular teen book series. Still, there were no guarantees those bookish fans would show up in theaters in late March, especially with that teen-friendly 21 Jump Street also playing in theaters.
But they did. Buoyed by a huge budget and a huge ad campaign (especially for March), the dystopian sci-fi flick earned a tidy $690 million plus at the box office and some nice critical notices. The rest is film history.
4. City of God (2003)
What better time to release a dark Brazilian crime drama than January? The competition was slim, and made up mostly of hold-over Hollywood films from the Christmas season. This amazing, realistic tale of the tough Rio streets couldn’t help but stand out from the crowd, earning a surprising $8 million in America (a big number for a non-English film), and $30 million around the world.
3. Alice In Wonderland (2010)
With Disney, director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp on board, they likely could have released this movie at any time of year and met guaranteed success. Still, the first week of March did give this one a leg up on the summer movies. And while critics weren’t exactly wowed, audiences turned out in droves to watch this hallucinogenic tale of the rabbit, the mad hatter and the little girl.
Next to The Hunger Games, it’s the biggest film ever released outside of summer and Christmas, and proof positive audiences will show up in cold weather to watch a movie.
2. Old School (2003)
A classic winter release – an easy-to-describe, knockabout escapist comedy that catered to teens. If a few adults found its aging frat boy plot funny, then that was a bonus. A decent hit in its first week – when it was beaten only by Daredevil – the comedy has become something of a cult item in the last decade. And when was the last time someone talked about Daredevil?
1. Taken 3 (opening January 9)
Gosh. How many times can a guy get ‘taken’ till he learns better? At least thrice, apparently. Maybe the problem with Taken 2 was it was released in October, not January like the first one. The sequel will be taking on some Christmas Oscar fare (The Gambler/Selma/Inherent Vice) and a few low budget horror movies. But don’t bet against Liam Neeson, who seems like Hollywood’s go-to winter star.
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