It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the summer blockbuster was born. Films like Jaws and Star Wars saw major commercial success due to well-timed releases as well as careful cinematic craft. More and more, Hollywood studios have held on to the films with the most potential financially until the summer months, so much so that the other months have begun to suffer even more. Thus the yang to the blockbuster yin was created: the dump months.
January and February have become known as the place where movies go to proverbially die. Studio heads show their blatant lack of faith in projects by throwing them into these slots to make some modest money while Oscar bait flicks released in the late fall and early winter of the previous year continue to flourish. The weather contributes to cinematic failure in this period, as well as household incomes hitting their yearly low following the holidays.
Particularly in the new millennium, the cinemas have become increasingly empty during the winter dump months due to critical failure and poor material. Big budget studios have come under fire for taking blatant advantage of the key release dates, in some cases almost abusing their power in this way.
But every once in a while, a winter gem comes along that takes critics and audiences by surprise. The LEGO Movie has already soared past its expected financial quota thanks to clever marketing and artistic merit. But particularly in the 80’s and 90’s, some truly timeless pieces continuously appeared in the least likely of times. Whether unlikely blockbusters or cult classics, these films have made an indelible mark upon pop culture.
Riding on the coattails of its commonly mistaken counterpart Flashdance, Footloose danced into theaters on a cold Friday in February and took audiences by storm. Its charismatic lead Kevin Bacon had only recently come into the public eye after a star turn in Diner, and wise casting led to an iconic performance that has stuck with us for decades. But it’s the incredibly catchy soundtrack from Tom Snow, Dean Pitchford, and (of course) Kenny Loggins that kept the money flowing for this project, shooting it to an unlikely number 7 at that year’s box office.
Peter Weir’s chilly thriller became one of the few films to do the unthinkable: earn a significant awards push following a winter opening. Witness earned eight Academy Award nominations and won two (Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing) almost a full year after its release. Thanks to a unique storyline, a winning lead (Harrison Ford, who also earned an Oscar nomination), and cunning marketing, the film managed to earn significant commercial success as well, landing at 1985’s box office number 8.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
John Hughes had earned some seriously high expectations. The former National Lampoon screenwriter was being chased by the success of his 1984 directorial debut Sixteen Candles. Yet he still managed to create the benchmark for modern high school films: The Breakfast Club. His Brat Pack cast firing on all cylinders, Hughes fought past a deadly February release date to achieve financial success for this charming chamber piece.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Woody Allen has never met a dump month he didn’t like. The invaluable filmmaker’s laissez-faire attitude has time and time again earned him unsought appreciation for his artistry and insight. Hannah and Her Sisters only needed Allen’s name to earn its five Academy Award nominations and three wins (Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress). The film owes a lot to Allen’s previous work, however, as it led to the film becoming his biggest box office hit until 2011’s Midnight in Paris.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
No, it did not become the box office hit it so sorely wanted to be. But Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure has become an undeniable cult classic that has persevered through its February release date and modest budget, so much so that it has merited an equally enjoyable sequel (and rumor has it a third film is now in the works).
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
If Witness and Hannah and Her Sisters fought past their dump month releases, The Silence of the Lambs devoured its own. Not only did it earn significant financial success and a number 5 place on that year’s box office. The iconic thriller went on to earn the big five at the Academy Awards the following year (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay).
Wayne’s World (1992)
The Saturday Night Live crew has had mixed results with its film adaptations of recurring sketches. Blues Brothers, Coneheads, and Superstar would never necessarily be grouped together if not for their common inception. But Mike Meyers’s infectiously likeable and hysterically funny adaptation of an equally funny SNL bit rode on its television success to the top ten of 1992’s box office, fighting an inexplicable Valentine’s release date.
Mark McCarver was born and raised in Houston, Texas and has been involved in theater and film since he was a kid. He spent the past few years acting and directing across Texas before moving to Washington, DC in the fall of 2012 to get a taste of the East Coast’s entertainment industry. Mark holds a BA in Drama from Trinity University and trained at the Syracuse University – London Drama Program and Shakespeare’s Globe. He is a company member with Half Mad Theatre in Washington.