I was ecstatic to learn about the long-awaited adaptation of Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" finally moving forward with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. After all the ups and downs this project has had over the years, it looks like all the pieces are finally in place. However, one detail gave me pause: the release date for the movie was January 13, 2017. Now, this has since been moved back a month, but the date caused a furor in some corners when first announced. Such a short timeline for the production isn't an immediately a reason to panic, but a January release date has almost always been a bad sign. January is traditionally the studios' dumping ground, the time when movies with dim prospects are released to simply fulfill contract obligations that they spend time in theaters, before being shuttled off to VOD and home media. Oscar contenders will get wider releases then, and occasionally someone puts out a horror movie that scares up a few dollars, but the box office is traditionally weak. The kids are back in school. Older audiences are recovering from the holidays. Nobody wants to go to the movies.
Or do they? This year "Kung Fu Panda 3" had its U.S. wide release at the end of January, to coincide with Chinese New Year, and it's been doing pretty well. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" made a good chunk of its money during January, as did "The Revenant." And then there was last year's "American Sniper," which pulled off an unheard of $89 million opening last year. Clearly there's some unmet demand there, and the studios are taking notice. And with so much competition in the fall and spring, and with expectations still so low for January and February receipts, we're starting to see riskier pictures being scheduled earlier and earlier in the year. January of 2017 also has Doug Liman's crime film "Mena" with Tom Cruise scheduled, along with the "XXX" and "Resident Evil" sequels, and the next M. Night Shyamalan movie. January of 2018 will bring the highly anticipated "Blade Runner 2" with Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. It's far too early for any of these movies to be getting written off for the usual reasons.
Now, on the one hand this is a good development. January and February is slowly turning into the best time for risky, weird, off kilter projects that the studios don't know where else to put. And sometimes they've reaped the rewards when one of those oddballs suddenly connects with audiences in a big way. Opening more real estate in January may mean that more risky projects get greenlit. "The Dark Tower," for instance, has been in development hell for decades. It may stand a better chance opening in January, with limited competition, than in a more crowded weekend later in the year. Remember, big blockbuster movies used to be limited to summer and the winter holidays, before the crush of too many tentpoles pushed some of the smaller titles to April, and then March. Now, after "Deadpool," February is looking like a viable choice for potential moneymakers. Marvel's "Black Panther" is scheduled for February, 2018. "The Dark Tower" and "Blade Runner" may mean January is now fair game too.
On the other hand, I like having January be a slower month, so I have the time to catch up on the overstuffed award season contenders that inevitably spill over from December. Every movie reviewer and blogger that I follow were still hashing out their top ten list and reactions to "The Revenant" well into the new year. I can also see an influx of big blockbusters being terrible for Oscar season. Frankly, I don't know If the prestige pictures would stand as much of a chance at the box office if they had to contend with the typical tentpole films we see during the rest of the year. They're not exactly in good shape as it is. Distributors are already avoiding the summer months, and packing everything remotely adult-oriented into post-Labor Day slots. If dates gets too competitive in January and February, does this mean that movies like "Hail, Caesar" or "Grand Budapest Hotel" will end up in the crush of October in the future?
Finally, consider this international wrinkle. Late January and early February coincides with the Chinese New Year holiday, when China's growing box office is at its busiest. A big portion of the "Kung Fu Panda 3" international gross came from China. Stephen Chow's "The Mermaid," which currently holds China's box office crown, opened the day after Chinese New Year. As China's influence continues to grow, release patterns will adjust to accommodate these audiences.