You could go into a showing of 12 Years A Slave expecting an uplifting comedy and still not be more wrong.
January and winter in general are the movie industry's landfill: a dumping ground of costly disappointments, Oscar snubs and cross-your-fingers comedies. What was the biggest film of last January? That would be the Spanish-Canadian horror film Mama and its $71 million take -- a surprise considering it was bumped from its October 2012 release date by Universal Picture and got mixed reviews. The biggest overall film of last winter: The Melissa McCarthy/Jason Bateman comedy Identity Thief, which took in $135 million through March despite being a nearly two-hour running fat joke that still comes in at a paltry 19% on Rotten Tomatoes. That film was originally slated for mid-May until someone at Universal thought better of it and stuck it square in one of the movie industry's "dump months."
Movie studios routinely toss out their worst dreck in January, February, August and September, when they know you're not going to be in theaters. Last year's January releases took in only $327.7 million in the U.S., which was the industry's lowest total for that month since 2007. It was also the lowest total of any month last year and just a fraction of the more than $1 billion a month the industry generates during the summer months and holiday season.
But what about the Golden Globe winners and Oscar nominees, you ask? Well, if those films have Viacom or Sony money backing them -- as Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle have, respectively -- there's a chance their 2,500-theater run will include one near you. But even that's no guarantee. Viacom's Paramount is behind director Alexander Payne's Nebraska, too, but that was in only 571 theaters when nominations were announced. That's fewer than the Weinstein Co.'s British comedic drama Philomena (600) and exceeds only Fox Searchlight's 12 Years A Slave (114), Warner Brothers' Gravity (155), Focus Features' Dallas Buyers' Club (125) and Sony's Captain Philips (114) because those films have been out for roughly three months or more.