"Aw, man. Summer's almost over. And there were really only a few truly great summer movies this year. And a lot of kinda disappointing ones. Some really
crappy ones. Now all I've got to look forward to are the big wasteland of movies that aren't classy enough to come out for Oscar
season or aren't exciting enough to come out in summer. Ugh. This is always so depressing."
The cinematic version of the Friday Night Death Slot
, the Dump Months
are certain months of the year that are viewed as, effectively, cinematic landfills where little of value can be found at the box office. Disastrous productions
that the studio wants to get behind them as quickly as possible with minimal fallout, low-budget genre fare that can't hang with the big boys of summer
, star vehicles for fading stars
thrillers and comedies that aren't quite
bad enough to be shuffled into the Direct-to-Video
netherrealm, films that got Screwed by the Studio
and are only getting released theatrically out of contractual obligation (or because somebody involved with the film has dirt on a studio executive) — all of this goes to the dump months to be forgotten about by the time they come out on DVD and start airing late at night on cable three months later.
In North America, at least, there are two dump "seasons" — late summer (August and September), and winter (January, February, and sometimes early March).
- August and September are obvious — it's the end of the Summer Blockbuster season and the kiddies are heading back into school, but the holiday season (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Oscars) where family films and arthouse fare thrive is still months away, while the studios are saving their biggest horror pictures for October. Plus, many families use Labor Day weekend (the big holiday during this time) for vacations, barbecues, and watching the start of the football season, keeping them away from the theaters.
On the other hand, September is also host to several film festivals, and marks the unofficial start to the race for the big awards. The Venice, Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals, where many studios first debut their prestige pictures, are all held in September. However, most of these films don't see wide release (i.e. outside New York and Los Angeles) until later months, meaning that, for the average, non-cinephile moviegoer living in the suburbs of Everytown, America, the only new movies worth watching in September are whatever they didn't catch from the summer, or whatever is available on demand.
Nowadays, August is generally considered a comparatively minor dump month, especially the first half of it. Films released at this time are usually put here not out of a lack of quality, but because the "main" blockbuster season has gotten so crowded that smaller films are pushed here out of necessity. The unofficial end of the summer season falls sometime in mid-August, give or take a week depending on the year, with one or two final big releases before the drought. In addition, in recent years August has become a popular release frame for horror films that can't make the October date, since it offers ample time to get the DVD in stores in time for Halloween without having to compete with the big summer blockbusters. However, before the Blockbuster Age it was considered a dump month like any other — for example, when Warner Bros. felt that Bonnie and Clyde was going to bomb, they dumped it in August.
- January and February, meanwhile, are past the cutoff date for Academy Award nominations but before the actual ceremonynote , meaning that all the big "prestige" pictures have been released and are expanding into wider markets as part of the Oscar campaign. Studios don't want to cannibalize their own films, especially their best films (or at least, their most Oscar-oriented films), so they stock the new release schedule mostly with cheaply produced films for two months.
On top of this, winter in the US is a time when several large cities at once, especially in the densely-populated Northeast and Midwest (not to mention the entire Canadian market outside maybe Vancouver), can easily be shut down by a large snowstorm, preventing people in those cities from getting out of their house to go to the movies. In addition, the two main holiday weekends during this time, Martin Luther King Day and Presidents' Day, are not universally celebrated as days off (the post office closes, but many school districts are still open), so a big budget release would be wasted in these months without three days of dependable box office returns. Lastly, the Super Bowl effectively turns the first weekend of February into a dead zone, as the game draws most of the nation's attention towards their televisions and away from theaters. The only silver lining is that Valentine's Day weekend is typically a great time to release romantic comedies and female-oriented films, for obvious reasons.
The "winter dump season" typically ends sometime in March, the exact week depending on the slate of movies that year. March and April arguably serve as a buffer of sorts between the winter wasteland and the Summer Blockbuster season, offering up lighter fare than the summer yet better quality than the winter as spring break and Easter provide open weeks for families, teenagers, and college kids to go to the movies. Movies that did well at that year's Oscars will often linger for a couple of weeks to do a victory lap as people decide to check out why they won, but as the "losers" from the Oscars fade out of sight, studios start bringing out their first really big movies of the year. 300 in 2007, together with the move of the Oscar ceremony to late February starting in 2004, arguably established the precedent of releasing big movies in March, and since then at least one or two second-tier blockbusters sees release during this month, one of the most notable recent films being The Hunger Games (which was number one at the box office for four weeks and one of the Top Ten Grossing Films of 2012).
Many of these films are often Not Screened for Critics
Once in a while, a film released in a dump month will break out and become a hit. Defiance of the "dump month curse" is a bit more common than defiance of the Friday Night Death Slot
. Movies marketed towards teens are often exceptions to the rule (hey, it's not like they have much better to do in the dead of winter), as are low-budget films. Plus, given the reputation for crappy product that the dump months hold, a merely good
film that would've been outshined by great
ones at any other time of year has a chance of breaking out and becoming a Sleeper Hit
In April of 2013, the National Association of Theater Owners sharply criticized the studios for this practice, stating that they believe a good movie can do well in any month. (They also called for fewer R-rated films, and more movies featuring people of color.) Since a movie theater's expenses
don't vary much from month to month, they'd rather have steady income all year. (Theaters' major fluctuation in expenses is seasonal hiring, caused
by dump months. They'd rather have the same staff all year, since training is its own expense.)
Compare Friday Night Death Slot
. Contrast Oscar Bait
, Summer Blockbuster
No Real Life Examples, Please!
Fictional examples, discussions of, and references to the trope in other media are okay, but a list of films cited as examples of what gets released during "dump months" will just turn into Complaining About Movies You Don't Like
Fictional examples and discussions:
- This article by The Atlantic explains the logic of why January and February are like this.
- As does this Metacritic article.
- Parodied by College Humor in this video.
- Moviebob discussed his thoughts on this trope in his review of Total Recall 2012, providing the page quote.
- He provides further thoughts on it in his review of Gangster Squad, arguing that, since most people are short on cash in early January thanks to the holiday shopping season, they're more reluctant to go to the movies until they have some savings built back up.
- This article criticizes this trope, arguing that Hollywood should spread out its Oscar fare over the whole year rather than cramming them into the fall and leaving September as a "holding pattern", thus making it easier to catch up on the nominees rather than be given just two months to see them all.