Mike Stoklasa: It means it's time for Hollywood to take out their garbage!
Jay: That's right, Mike! They use our own neighborhood movie theaters to dump their waste!
Mike: I feel just like someone on a boat underneath the Dave Matthews Band's tour bus!
The big-screen 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, B-grade 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 (or, these days, on Netflix and the like) 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 and making it one of the smallest weekends for the box office all year.
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, the second half of August is generally considered a comparatively minor dump month, and the first half isn't at all. 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. August 2014, for instance, saw the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, which marked the first time an August release was the highest grossing of the summer since box office was regularly tracked in the 1970s, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which was also a modest success. In addition, 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,note and it's also recognized as a great time to release more mature fare aimed at older audiences and women who are burned out from the heat of all the big action movies in the past three months. 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. However, before The Blockbuster Age it was considered a dump month like any other — for example, when Warner Bros. suspected that Bonnie and Clyde would fail, they dumped it in August.
- January and February, meanwhile, are past the cutoff date for Academy Award nominations but before the actual ceremony,note 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 for the next two months mostly with films that were dirt-cheap to produce and get little advertising.
On top of this, winter in the U.S. is a time when several large cities at once can easily be shut down by a large snowstorm, greatly lowering movie theater revenue. This is especially known to happen in the densely-populated Northeast and Midwest, and in most of Canada outside maybe Vancouver. Furthermore, the two main U.S. holiday weekends during this time, Martin Luther King Day and Presidents' Day, aren't universally celebrated as days off, so a big-budget release would be wasted in these months without three days of dependable box office returns. Lastly, sporting events are a major draw on every weekend, with the NFL entering its postseason and the NBA, the NHL, and NCAA college basketball in the middle of their regular seasons.note The Super Bowl in particular 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.
There are some silver linings, however. Valentine's Day weekend is typically a great time to release romantic comedies and female-oriented films, for obvious reasons. Likewise, teen-oriented films are liable to succeed during this time, largely as counter-programming to the Oscar Bait and televised sporting events that teens usually aren't as interested in as the adults. Notable examples include Chronicle, Warm Bodies, and Fifty Shades of Grey which for many movie theaters was the busiest day for its Saturday Valentine's Day shows. In addition, critically-acclaimed films such as The LEGO Movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Deadpool (2016), and Black Panther (2018) have met box office success despite being February releases. January is also a month where leftovers from the Oscar Bait season see wide release, such as Hidden Figures and Patriots Day.
The 'winter dump season' typically ends sometime in March. March and April 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. The move of the Oscar ceremony to late February starting in 2004, together with the success of 300 in 2007, 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 films being The Hunger Games (which was number one at the box office for four weeks and one of the biggest hits 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. In particular, given the reputation for crappy products 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.
Theaters tend to hate this practice, as while it means that their revenue may vary greatly from month to month, their expenses usually don't. Furthermore, their major fluctuation in expenses is seasonal hiring, which is caused by this phenomenon; they'd rather have a full-time staff, since training is its own expense and an experienced staff can provide better service. As a result, 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.)
Note that the definition of a "dump month" is not static. Historically, while spring, summer, and late fall have always been premium release seasons, January didn't always have its toxic reputation. Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr has noted that, during the days of the studio system, January saw far more high-quality releases than it did after, with The '40s serving as the high point for January releases. The antitrust decision United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. in 1948, forcing the studios to divest their theater chains and end the practice of block booking, meant that movies were no longer guaranteed a long theatrical run at every point in the year, leading studios to cluster their biggest releases around holidays and warmer weather. By The '80s, with summer blockbusters rising to prominence, the idea of the January leper colony had solidified.
A similar practice exists in book publishing. For example, industry wisdom says not to release your novel in August, or for that matter, anything but textbooks (as that's what people will need in September).
It also happens to an extent in anime, as the strongest series are reserved for the Fall and Spring TV seasons in Japan.
No Real Life Examples, Please! Fictional examples, discussions of, and references to the trope in other media are acceptable, but a list of films cited as examples of what gets released during 'dump months' is simply too likely to 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 CollegeHumor in this video.
- Bob Chipman discussed his thoughts on this trope in his review of Total Recall (2012), providing the below quotation:
"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."
- 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.
- In the Big Picture episode "Bumbleboot", he also makes the case for, oddly enough, December having become a borderline dump month in the 2010s, in that, while people do go to the movies during this time, it's usually a single family-friendly blockbuster (either an animated film or a Star Wars film) that utterly dominates the conversation while everything else fights for second. As such, studios had come to use December as a release time for blockbusters that they had faith in, but which they felt were too offbeat for the spring/summer season. 2018, he felt, was a weird December at the movies given how that year's big Star Wars film Solo had been moved up to a prime summer slot while Disney's holiday blockbuster Mary Poppins Returns wasn't a sure bet, allowing films like Aquaman (2018), Bumblebee, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to become breakout hits.
- 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.
- Referred to by Brad Jones during his Midnight Screenings when talking about We're the Millers which he referred to as an "August Movie". His friend Brian pointed out that August is where they put movies that "aren't a sure thing".
- Half in the Bag coined the phrase "Fuck you, it's January!" to mock the low standards for movies released during that month.
- This article on Slate refers to February as the worst movie month of the year. It also comes with a chart that highlights the dump months by year (starting with 2000), including how the winter dump season started narrowing to just January and February from the mid-'00s onward.
- Film critic Janet Maslin of The New York Times, after one particularly... memorable January at the moviesnote , wrote this article in 1989 explaining the phenomenon. In particular, she notes that many "January movies" tend to be, for better or worse, very offbeat and quirky, the sort of films that would never play in the more "respectable" seasons.
- The Saturday Night Live season 40 episode hosted by Amy Adams featured a Cold Open by Mike Myers as Dr. Evil, mocking the cancellation of The Interview's release in response to North Korean terrorist threats. His advice to Kim Jong-un?
Dr. Evil: You're one of the most evil countries in the world, and your act of war is to kill a movie? It's easy to kill a movie. Just move it to January.
- Defied in this article by Trace Thurman of Bloody-Disgusting, listing ten horror movies released in February that actually weren't terrible. He notes how January and February have a terrible reputation for this, with studios using the time to clear house on movies they think will bomb, which makes it that much more fulfilling to find a diamond in the rough.
- The CinemaSins review of New Moon jokes that it must be January if the only movies the characters have a choice of going to see are called "Face Punch" and "Love Spelled Backwards Is Love".
- On the podcast '80s All Over, Drew and Scott find that the January-February and August-September periods were as much dump months back in the '80s as they are now, with much weaker overall slates than the rest of the year. However, they also found that November was prone to weak lineups until 1983, and were genuinely surprised to find that May, now part of the Summer Blockbuster season, was not a big deal in 1983 or '84. May '83 had only eleven then-new releases beyond Return of the Jedi, at least seven of which were B Movies or substantially worse, to the point that no less than four hits from the previous year (Rocky III, Porky's, Friday the 13th Part III, and Poltergeist) were brought back as quickie reissues to fill out the month. In the Halloween Episode, they ponder why so many of the most beloved horror movies were not released in October, and they chalk it up to that month traditionally being a dumping ground especially for bad horror movies.