For years, January and February have been thought of as the months where Hollywood movies go to die. The post-holiday season has long been a cinematic wasteland, a barren landscape where studios dump films they have no real faith in, hoping to eke out a few bucks of profit before shuffling the titles off to the home video market. If summer and the holidays are where event films and prestige pictures make their mark, January and February is the season of our cinematic discontent – or is it?
During the past few years, observers have seen a bit of a paradigm shift when it comes to films released in the dead of winter. Oh, there’s still tons of dreck clogging up screens at the local multiplex to be sure, but the box office returns aren’t nearly as dire as they used to be. January, for example, now seems to feature more horror films than October – and some of them (like this year’s The Devil Inside) have gone on to make money. Films like 2008’s Cloverfield have even had opening weekends in excess of $50 million.
News in today’s THR reports that theater attendance is up 14.6% so far in 2012 – which only includes January and part of February at this point. Revenue – already at $1.9 billion – is up 14.1%. The aforementioned The Devil Inside posted the third best January opening ever earlier this year ($33.7 million) and last week’s The Vow and Safe House each cracked the $40 million barrier (which marks the first time two films opening on the same weekend in January or February have made more than $40 million). Based on the numbers, it appears as though attitudes about early year releases might be changing.
That being said, there are a few things to consider before studios start treating January like July. First off, some of the lower box office numbers of the past few years are attributable to the economic downturn in America. Some see the newly increased receipts simply as a (very welcome) sign that the economy is improving and that these figures aren’t so much growth but more a return to where the numbers would have been without the recession.
Another factor, at least this year, is the mild winter most of the country is experiencing. With less snow on the ground than normal in most locations, people aren’t cocooning in their homes – they’re out and about and heading to their local theaters. This doesn’t diminish the earnings of films like Cloverfield – which didn’t benefit from a warm winter in 2008 – but could be at least partially responsible for the bump in attendance and revenue in 2012.
Of course, the studios – optimists that they are – believe that the rise in sales is attributable to the films featured on the marquee this winter. Nikki Rocco, Universal’s head of domestic distribution, theorizes that “the diverse films offered have hit the pulse of what people want to see," before also citing the weather. We’re not entirely sold on that – quality and diversity are fairly hard to gauge objectively – but it’s clear something is happening to bolster box office numbers this year. Will it continue into March and spring? Only time will tell – but reports of gasoline prices hitting $4.00 a gallon by May should have everyone in Hollywood worried that this box office boom might be very short-lived.