Are We Looking at the Best February For Movies Ever?

By  · Published on November 20th, 2015

Earlier this week, Lions Gate Entertainment released the first trailer for Gods of Egypt, a bizarre cross of ethnic whitewashing and B-movie largesse that seemed to amuse people more than it upset them. Despite (what can only be described as) a tenuous grasp on Egyptian mythology, Gods of Egypt promises giant snakes and green screen fights between Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Gerard Butler, putting it solidly on the February 2016 radar for more than a few people.

And normally that would be the end of it. A movie that looks maybe-terrible is crammed into an early year release spot and people crack wise about being the best of a bad bunch. What surprised me, though, wasn’t that Gods of Egypt was being dumped in February; it was that one could be legitimately concerned as to whether there is still room in February for another movie. While the rest of us weren’t paying close attention, February turned into potentially the most interesting release month of 2016. And that bucks a historical trend that places February solidly among the worst movie release months of the year.

February Movies History

Before we look at February 2016, though, let’s take a quick look at the numbers for each month’s most notable releases.

The above chart was created using the historical opening weekend grosses from Box Office Mojo and the average critical score from Rotten Tomatoes. For each month, I pulled the ten films with highest grossing opening weekends and included the average (not the weighted average) of each film’s rating. Even as a snapshot, we can see that the results mostly match the narrative. January is a terrible month for movies both financially and critically, which likely leads to the new trend of distributors targeting that month for a middling horror film. The further we progress in the year, the higher the average ratings of the films; meanwhile, the best months for opening weekends are unsurprisingly clustered around the early summer. Also worth noting? If you are a filmmaker and your distributor offers you a September release slot, you tell them to go straight to hell. You know nothing good ever happens in September.

While February may not be the lowest grossing or the lowest scoring of all the months, it sits comfortably close to January and September as a nice amalgamation of the two. And that’s why it’s so surprising to see so many interesting projects on tap for next February. Scroll back through the last few years and you’ll find a mixture of actor-driven action movies like This Means War and A Good Day to Die Hard leading the pack but very few movies that have a real pedigree behind them. Next February? The Coen Brothers. Natalie Portman. Kate Winslet as a bad guy. A big budget sequel to a beloved comedy. If you weren’t paying attention you might actually think this was November and actual awards and box office money were hanging in the balance.

The Case for 2016

Here’s the full release schedule. Check it out. We’ll be here when you get back.

It’s important to acknowledge that these movies didn’t end up in the infamous February release spot on accident. Approach each film from the perspective of someone a bit more risk-averse and you can make a strong argument for why each film didn’t warrant a better release date. Hail Caesar is a self-reflexive Hollywood comedy by two filmmakers who have never commanded big box office. Jane Got a Gun has struggled with production issues that heighten any of the film’s missteps. We haven’t cared about Zoolander in fifteen years. Deadpool is a departure from the tried-and-true formula of modern superhero films. Triple 9 is yet-another film about corrupt cops that shoots up public spaces. You still have to sell The Witch to general audiences as a period horror film. The only reason that people are excited about Gods of Egypt is because it looks like a mess. Female-driven comedies like How to be Single are a risk at the box office.

(Of course, this last one is demonstrably incorrect, but we’re still a year or two away from studios realizing that the success of female-driven comedies is the trend and not the outlier, so it still applies.)

But listing the red flags of the February releases only serves to underline how diverse that month’s lineup will be. Every dedicated cinephile knows the time of year that will serve their tastes the best. If you’re a fan of blockbusters, the summer is when you spend your days at the multiplex. If you’re a fan of prestige films, you hold out for award season in the fall. This February promises a little bit of everything for everyone. As more movies flee the competitive landscape of summer and fall, we see more interesting titles pushing their way into traditionally dead months. Any success among the 2016 crop might encourage distributors to widen the release windows for both art and commercial cinema even further, bringing one step closer to a year-round cycle of great cinema.

Most importantly, though, we are presented with a slate of movies that offer something a different from the sanitized Hollywood blockbuster that we’ve spent the last calendar year complaining about. Most cinephiles I know would gladly trade a bland film for a risky one; while movies like Jane Got a Gun and Triple 9 might not fit neatly into any one Hollywood box, they represent the type of mid-range cinema that so often seems to be hanging on by barely a thread. After The Proposition, The Road, and even Lawless, I am probably more excited to see what neo-western director John HIllcoat can do in a modern setting than I am for any number of summer properties. And the overwhelming buzz for The Witch coming out of the Sundance Film Festival means we don’t have to wait very long for one of the best horror films of 2016. To borrow a sports scouting term, both of these movies are low-floor, high-ceiling, meaning they offer a lot more potential than the high-floor, low-ceiling blockbusters that have become the norm. Movies are more fun when there’s a little bit of risk involved.

So keep your eyes on the release schedule for February 2016 and don’t buy into the hype (this year, at least) that the early part of the year is a dumping ground for bad titles. For once, February might just be the month that rewards you for your risk-taking.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)