Studios and mini-majors always use the end of year to launch their best awards contenders, but the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is known for something else among film distributors: a dumping ground for bad movies. Starting around Black Friday every year, a wave of crappy titles hit theaters like clockwork. What’s driving this annual offloading of lousy product?
Studios have avoided releasing films in early December for decades, fearing that the end of the year crunch and holiday shopping will keep people out of theaters. This creates an opening for distributors that need to get bad movies off their books in a hurry.
“If I were a studio and I had a film that I knew wasn’t going to do very well but I had to put it on 1,000 screens, you can get a lot of screens in December,” said Dylan Marchetti, senior vice president of acquisitions at Well Go USA. “It’s a slow time of year between Thanksgiving and Christmas for studio films, so there are screens available.”
One prime example of the December dumping ground is the crime-drama “Solace,” which hits theaters and video-on-demand on Friday, December 16. The film stars Anthony Hopkins as a retired psychic working with the FBI to hunt down a murderer, and has a Metascore of 41. It has no passionate defenders.
While the conventional wisdom continues to be that many people are too busy to go to the movies in the weeks leading up to Christmas, some distributors are quick to point out that this age-old rule has been disproven time and again. “That’s bunk now,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-founder Tom Bernard, citing the fact that “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” also hits theaters on Friday, December 16. “Records are going to be set in the next week.” (“Rogue One” is projected to earn between $280 million and $350 million at the worldwide box office during its first five days.)
It’s not just big-budget studio franchises, however, that disprove the notion that December is bad play time to release good movies. Kenneth Lonergan’s acclaimed indie drama “Manchester by the Sea” expanded from 48 screens to 156 during the first weekend of December, more than doubling its box office earnings, from $2.1 million to $4.3 million. The film cracked $6 million this past weekend.
Still, Hollywood continues to view the first weekend of December as essentially dead time.
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“If you open your mouth about that weekend in a meeting in a studio, you’re going to have your head ripped off,” said one distributor, adding that filmmakers want their holiday films to hit theaters as close to Christmas as possible. “You’re not going to tell someone who’s got a big Christmas movie that you’re going to open it on December 2. They’re going to say, ‘Like hell you are. You’re going to open near Christmas, because you’re not going to dump my movie.'”
Independent distributors that have good reason to avoid December are those with quality films that may not be major award contenders, according to theatrical booking agent Michael Tuckman. “Companies like Magnolia won’t have that many large releases this time of year,” he said. “If it’s not going to be an awards film, then how are you going to make your point to audiences to skip those ones that are getting all the extra attention and come to yours?”
Andrew Carlin, director of theatrical distribution at Oscilloscope Laboratories, agrees. “Ultimately it makes more sense to let the mini-majors duke it out with their multimillion-dollar award campaigns,” he said. “We’re looking ahead to February and March.”
The month of February, however, has also been viewed as another dumping ground due to winter weather and the weekend of the Academy Awards. The back-to-school period in September starting after Labor Day is another period that has earned a reputation as something of a dead zone. This is one reason studios cram as many movies as they can into July and the first two weeks of August, according to Well Go USA’s Marchetti. “That one always cracks me up,” he said. “It’s like the studios couldn’t possibly put out a movie in September, meanwhile those films in July and August cannibalize the hell out of each other.”
The lesson for distributors, therefore, is that not every dumping ground should be avoided like the plague. “If you put ‘Rogue One’ out two weeks ago, it would do just as much money as it would two weeks later,” said Marchetti. “Whether it be the studio side or the independent side, if you put a movie out that people want to see, they’ll go see it.”