Dump month: Do studios still try to offload bad movies in January?

·Senior Editor
Ben Affleck's winning directing streak came to a skidding halt with <i>Live By Night</i>, which dropped into cinemas January 2017. (Warner Bros.)
Ben Affleck's winning directing streak came to a skidding halt with Live By Night, which dropped into cinemas January 2017. (Warner Bros.)

The start of the year can be a great time for cinemagoers with a wealth of holiday-period blockbusters and awards season stonkers to choose from.

It can also be a confusing time too though with some films being quietly dumped into cinemas during January and February with as much ceremony as the tatty bare Christmas trees being tossed out into the street across the country.

So, for every screen showing Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, 1917 or Little Women, there’s another showing Underwater or The Grudge. The Sam Raimi-produced horror remake has already been given a kicking by critics and audiences in America, earning a dreaded F Cinemascore rating from paying punters.

But why does January and February (and to a lesser extent August-September) signal the start of dumping season?

Read more: January’s most exciting movies

The concept of a “dump month” is a more common phenomenon in North America, for a number of different reasons, but it also happens here in the UK too simply because of the nature of the release calendar.

One contributing factor is awards season. For a film to be eligible for the Academy Awards, it needs to be released in North America between 1 January and 31 December the previous year, so all the big awards contenders have already been released, and will probably still be playing in cinemas.

Big studios don’t want to cannibalise the audiences for their contenders, so they tend to release cheaper, lower quality films to fill the calendar. These are often troubled productions, poorly-testing pictures, middling genre films, or out and out turkeys.

Another factor is timing. People have just splurged on Christmas and so are less likely to want to visit the cinema, and in some cases unwilling to leave the house due to poor weather conditions. But with screens to fill, films still need to be released, whatever the quality.

It doesn’t bode well for Bad Boys For Life or Dolittle, both of which come to cinemas in America this January with very little buzz to speak of.

The inhabitants of Marwen (Universal)
The inhabitants of Marwen (Universal)

We’ve seen some real stinkers dropping in January years gone by. The first week of January 2019 heralded the release of Robert Zemeckis’ tonally misjudged Welcome To Marwen and Dan Fogelman’s universally derided Life Itself. Insidious: The Last Key, The Commuter and 12 Strong all limped out in January 2018, while Assassin’s Creed, Live By Night and The Bye Bye Man all got dumped in 2017.

Some of these films went on to earn their money back though, and the Telegraph’s box office guru Charles Gant says the concept of a dump month doesn’t really apply to the UK.

Read more: 2020’s most exciting new releases

“In the UK, January is mostly characterised by awards season films that must release prior to the BAFTA ceremony which is on 2 February,” Gant explains. “Cinemas are pretty full with those titles, and with titles held over from the holiday season.”

“Apparently The Grudge is not great. But weak films come out almost any month of the year.”

While 2020’s January is shaping up to be largely turkey free (so far) and with loads of great releases to look forward to, there’s still a long way to go until we’re in the clear of dumping season.