Januaryween: The Curious Young Tradition of Starting the Year with Bad Horror

By  · Published on January 8th, 2015

Relativity Media

In the first week in January, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death made a respectable $15.8m at the box office, and is now quietly fading from our collective memories forever. Thus, another year of proud cinematic tradition is complete.

Seriously, that’s actually a tradition. Each January, on the first box-office weekend of the year, comes a new horror movie. More often than not, that film is extremely cruddy (“extremely cruddy” being extremely generous, “hated by every single person who saw it” might be more accurate). And it’s usually the only new film to hit theaters that weekend – the only competition coming from the last holdovers of Christmas prestige season.

It’s not the most cherished tradition, but it’s tradition nonetheless. And it’s a phenomenon that really doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Just why, exactly, has January become a low quality micro-Halloween?

Let’s find out.

First, some hard numbers. What follows is a list of every sloppy horror mess that’s graced the new year, from 2005 to today (January 2005 is when this trend officially began).

Data via Rotten Tomatoes/Box Office Mojo

2007 was an odd duck year. No major horror film in the first weekend, but a new one every subsequent weekend for the rest of January: Primeval, The Hitcher, Blood & Chocolate.

There was a vague sense of Januaryween before 2005, but nothing so concrete. From 2002 to 2004, a horror film opened around the third weekend of January (The Butterfly Effect, Darkness Falls and The Mothman Prophecies). There were also a handful of Januaries in the ’80s with first-weekend horror showings: Scream (not the one you’re thinking of) in 1981, Madman in 1982 and The Mutilator in 1985.

Bad horror movies in the early months of the year is not exactly new. The concept of the January/February “dumping ground” has existed for decades (as early as 1989, New York Times film critic Janet Maslin was bemoaning January as a “resting place for so many flukes, black sheep, wild cards and also-rans”). But this concept has been picked apart with far more scrutiny than its reserved-for-the-first-weekend-in-January counterpart, so let’s save a lot of time and sum up the basic reasoning behind the “dumping grounds” in one extremely well-spoken and succinct quote.

Says Ray Subers, editor at Box Office Mojo (via The Atlantic):

“January typically sees genre films and films that have tested poorly getting their contractually-due theatrical release, while discerning adult audiences are catching up on the various ten-best lists and the general moviegoers are seeing the event films of December.”

And because there’s so little competition, films like The Woman in Black: Angel of Death get a decent shot at turning a profit. Or at least the best shot they’ll get.

That explains the dumping ground, but why the Halloween microcosm right after the big ball drops in Times Square? It’s also a surprisingly simple explanation – just look back to 2005, when the trend officially started.

White Noise scoring $24m in early January doesn’t sound like much today (not when films far crappier have fared far better), but in 2005 that was phenomenal. Previously, January was weak all around, but the first weekend was Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma. Studios skipped it over entirely. The first weekend of the year served as a victory lap for whoever won the last box office battle the year before – usually mondo event pictures like Titanic or Lord of the Rings or family films (both Patch Adams and Stuart Little scored an easy win with their first January weekend). Before 2005, the last major release to open that time frame was 12 Monkeys, all the way back in 1996. And even that one had opened to a limited release the week before.

Universal took an enormous risk by plopping White Noise in that January 7th slot. The risk paid off; Michael Keaton and his weird TV static demons pulled in far more money than a film of that caliber (really not a great caliber) deserved. And because this is Hollywood, where any successful idea is immediately copied by all others and suplexed into the ground (where once was only The Avengers, now there exists expanded universes for the Universal Monsters and Robin Hood), the New Year horror movie trend has shuffled forward for a decade now.

Adam Fogelson, former chairman for Universal Pictures, admitted it outright: “The first weekend in January used to be a non-starter for people, we had a this little horror movie White Noise that did business, and that has become a place where movies like that tend to operate.”

Unlike the eventual gritty Father Tuck spin-off (I’ve got my hopes up, but the smart money’s on dismal failure), the first-weekend-of-the-year horror tradition is smashingly successful. Scroll up to the list above and you’ll note that every film scored at least a $10m opening payday (Except for Bloodrayne, but that was directed Uwe Boll and thus privy to an extremely special set of German tax loophole-funded circumstances… we’ll give that one a pass).

Only two of our New Year horror movies had budgets above the $20m mark. Season of the Witch and Bloodrayne (those tax loopholes are no joke). That means your average first-of-the-year horror film is nearly guaranteed to make at least half its budget back in the first weekend alone.

That’s incredible; far more profitable than most studio tentpoles could dream of. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies cost $250m and made $54m in its opening weekend; operating at a January horror level of profitability, it would have made more than double that. Studios would salivate over some magic season where a $200m+ blockbuster could come standard with an $100m+ opening. That first weekend in January – by ratio – is about the closest thing they’ve got.

Too bad this phenomenon will only ever work in the doldrum months with the horror genre. Horror films, given their genre tropes of “obscuring the monster just off-screen” and “invisible ghost/phantom/Kevin Bacon,” are routinely dirt cheap. It’s no coincidence that the movies that break records by pulling in several hundred times their original profit are indie horror flicks like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.

The Devil Inside cost $1m to make. In January of 2012, it grossed $33m in its opening weekend. That’s a 3300% return on the initial investment in one week. If studios can make that kind of bank by releasing cheaply made gorefests in a weekend no one really cared about in the first place, they’ll keep doing it. Forever.

The trend continues – 2016 already has two cheapo horror flicks scheduled for January 8th – The Forest (Natalie Dormer lost in Japan’s Suicide Forest) and something untitled from Blumhouse Productions, the production company behind Paranormal Activity, Ouija, The Purge and, for some reason, Whiplash. Between then and now, will some other horror movie snatch up the weekend of the 1st?

I’d say it’s a safe bet. It is tradition, after all.

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