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Winter box office is sluggish — bad movies or cold-weather inertia?

Published: Saturday, March 15 2014 9:05 a.m. MDT

Batman (Will Arnett) is just one of many familiar characters that appear in the February hit "The LEGO Movie."

Warner Bros.

Hollywood observers are always looking to explain movie trends. From the smartest studio executives to the lowliest online bloggers, everyone has a theory.

But the truth is, “Nobody knows anything,” as William Goldman famously wrote in his 1983 book “Adventures in the Screen Trade.”

Which is to say that although Hollywood movers and shakers consistently attempt to position their movies for release at that optimum moment to garner the largest audience and thereby claim the biggest box-office return (especially on that all-important debut weekend), no one really knows if any particular strategy will actually work.

If a film meets with great success, their theories are validated. If not, they are flummoxed and start looking for excuses, if not scapegoats.

The people behind last year’s “The Lone Ranger” must have thought they were going to strike gold with Johnny Depp’s name above the title and an opening date on the first weekend in July, the perfect time to entice sun-baked movie fans into a nice cool theater for a couple of hours. But the film was a notorious flop. Why? Surf the Internet and you’ll find lots of speculation, but in the end, that’s right, "nobody knows anything."

Right now, Hollywood prognosticators are suggesting that the current box-office slowdown is because nobody goes to the movies in January, February or March, which has caused this period to become a dumping ground for movies of little or no worth.

Or maybe it’s because the movies are, generally speaking, not what people want to see, rather than the reason having much or anything to do with cold-weather inertia.

Way back in 1984, I wrote a story for the Deseret News about how the filmed-in-Utah “Footloose” was being hailed as a surprise hit — a surprise not because of anything to do with the movie itself, but simply because it opened big in mid-February and then held on to the No. 1 spot for three weeks. Apparently, somebody was going to the movies in February. “Footloose” would go on to become the seventh biggest hit of 1984.

So here we are 30 years later, and no one seems to have learned a thing. If February is such a lame month just because it’s February, how do you explain the blockbuster that is “The Lego Movie”? It's a huge February hit that probably wouldn’t have achieved any greater success had it opened in June.

Or the more modest hit — but still a hit — “Lone Survivor,” which led January’s box office. And it appears that the March opener “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is on track to be another major success.

It’s true that moviegoing has dipped during these early months of 2014, and that’s generally true every year. But did anyone ever stop to think that it might be due to the weaker movies that tend to play during those months, films in which the studios have little, if any, faith?

Since everyone in Hollywood is looking for a sure thing, any movie with the slightest possibility of going big is positioned against another film of the same perceived caliber during summer or the holidays, the two biggest movie seasons of the year. Everything else is just leftovers.

Those who market and distribute movies don’t believe in word of mouth anymore. They’re too anxious to earn their money during that first weekend, anticipating that business will drop off exponentially in subsequent weeks. And then it’s off to home-video platforms, the sooner the better.

Once upon a time, a movie could build on its own reputation, and box-office earnings would grow as those who saw something they really enjoyed encouraged others to see it as well, whatever the time of year. But these days, that’s extremely rare and almost exclusively confined to art-house films, as opposed to those languishing in multiplexes.

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