Thanksgiving has passed and that means the weather gets a bit more crisp, the night gets a little longer and the amount of films released per week begins to grow. December brings many things for the cinephiles of the world: huge blockbusters, a slew of indie films vying for their shot at the Oscar, and the occasional holiday movie. It’s known as THE month for films making a running for the Oscar. As traditional knowledge holds, when you release a film closer to the deadline for Academy consideration (Dec. 31), said film will be ‘fresh’ in the mind of the academy voter. This has already been observed to be wrong in a few ways. Oscars aside, December just seems to have better movies. But I think that is in part because a ton of movies are released in December and it stands as the most profitable box office month of the year. Chilly weather outside makes a great excuse for humans to gather inside and partake in this cultural phenomenon. And while that stats do show that December is the most profitable month for the film industry, it doesn’t necessarily show that the best movies are released in December. Unfortunately for us, the most wonderful time of the year, as far as movies are concerned, might have already passed us by. I actually think in terms of critical quality, November is a much better month for the movies.
Let’s look at it in regards to the Academy Awards. ‘Oscar bait’ is a bit of a pejorative term, but a term which is recognizable enough to validate its own wikipedia page as well as a guide to discerning these from other films. The term recognizes a category of films which were produced with the intention of garnering critical appeal, more specifically, an Oscar. And if there was a fishing season in the film industry, a time to cast out the bait, oh boy would it be December. Producers believe that by throwing their hat in the ring at the right time, they’ll get the press they need to begin their ‘Oscar campaign’ – a term I loathe. But there is some truth to the benefit of December, I mean think of all of the movies released every Christmas! It’s dizzying and not just because it’s one of the busiest moviegoing days of the year. Going to a theater, my heart goes out to the poor workers who are inundated with the menial complaints from patrons who haven’t been to the theater since Avatar. But the producer’s strategic planning doesn’t always translate. There are always a few films whose critical buzz carries on throughout the year as well as a few ‘surprise films’ who weren’t necessarily going for an Oscar, but were likable enough, they made it to the grand prix. Between these movies wedging their way in and a number of ‘snubs‘ that occur, the final list of nominees is a bit more diverse with its calendar spread.
I looked at all of the best picture nominees since 2009 (when they changed the allotted number of nominees) and their release dates by month. It turns out that November might actually be the magic month – not December! Since 2009, 16 of the 63 Oscar Nominated films have been released in December, compared to 17 in November. Perhaps even more surprising is that those two months only host a little more than half of the nominated films, though they’re considered the prime slot for releases. I mean, if I’m a producer, the stats still show that the end of the year is generally a pretty promising time to release if I’m looking to garner critical acclaim for my film. That being said, this data shows that it’s by no means a necessity. So for those who determine merit by critical acclaim based on “prestigious awards”, you might bet on November for your movie fix.
But award nominations are based on the opinion of the industry insiders which reflect only a small demographic of the populous. So lets look at critical acclaim more generally. I spoke to a moviegoer friend recently who muttered the arbitrary statement: “I am so glad December is almost here. Finally we can see some good movies.” Upon clarification, he claimed that good movies weren’t necessarily Oscar-material, but rather well-reviewed films which have a critical consensus. Lucky for us, there’s now a website that devotes it’s entire existence to weighing the opinion of many critics and coming up with an aggregate score based on these critical reviews and then assigning it a produce-quality rating, much like a grocery store might. In short, Rotten Tomatoes is the FDA of movies, god bless em’. The problem is that people really love to release movies this time of year and so I couldn’t possibly run the numbers on every movie released in November and December in such a short time. I am just one guy who has a blog. But some movies are more prominent than others and one thing that this time of year can certainly point to in terms of success is money. So, using some assistance from the good people over at BoxOfficeMojo, I found the top five films at the box office for November and December since 2011 and looked at their Rotten Tomatoes score. I then averaged the score of the top five films for November and for December of each year and did a side by side comparison. It’s not an exact science, but for someone with a liberal arts degree, you gotta admit it’s a pretty good place to start.
So what does that data say? In three of the last five years, 2012, 2014, and 2015, the November average Rotten Tomatoes score was higher. In 2012, November had an impressive average 82% from its top five box office winners, compared to December which had only 75%. But that 7% gap between November and December average Rotten Tomatoes scores widens in 2014 and 2015. In 2014, the November’s average score is 9% better than December’s and in 2015, it becomes a staggering 23%, with November earning an average of 79% and December holding a measly 56% – a percent considered rotten when reviewing single films on Rotten Tomatoes. In addition to this, when December did do better, in 2011 and 2013, it was by a the smallest margins in the data set – 4% and 5%. Ouch. That’s not to say that December is a bad month for movies overall. Compared to most months, December movies have really good reviews. But to say that we are finally in the season of ‘good movies’? I think that might be a bit of an overstatement. If anything, we’re in the middle/back end of the ‘good movie season’. After all, the numbers for this November looks like it’s top five box office films are going to average a Rotten Tomatoes score of 87%, which is going to be damn hard to beat even if there are some critical favorites coming up. If the trend continues this, November will continue to solidify its place as the Jon Snow of quality cinema – an unsuspecting leader who always manages to deliver.
December might be crumbling under the weight of its own expectations. After all, the most wonderful time of the year? Maybe not if the most memorable part is the fight you had with your in-laws. But despite it not meeting expectations in the cinematic world, it still holds quite a few gems. Right out of the gates, it’s the perfect time to see all those movies that came out in November that you missed out on. I know that there’s quite a few November movies I look forward to watching in the coming week. It’s also great because, around the holidays, the social aspect of the theater comes alive again. Your family and friends can accompany you to the matinee of the next Star Wars movie and you’ll all probably spend lunch disagreeing over whether Disney ruined the series, but at least you’ll be engaging in discourse about a cultural phenomenon. One other thing that’s fantastic about December is that it’s the time of the year where independent cinema gets to flourish. Whether it’s smaller films getting a wider release (I’m still waiting for Manchester By the Sea to come closer to me) or the small wave of late-season, folk-guitar-supported, poetry-fueled hipster flicks (I’m looking at you Paterson), there’s a movie that every lover of small cinema can look forward to (even if it’s only small in the studio sense).
So in cinematic terms, the most wonderful time of the year has just passed us. But the truth is that really good movies come out all year round. I think the entire concept of the Oscar campaign is silly and these “strategic release” dates end up burying really good movies behind a slew of blockbusters. But if you missed everything that was released this last November, there’s a lot to look forward to in the future. If anything, December really calls on the American public to dial into the world of cinema. It’s a time where most people go see at least one film and I find the movies an easy icebreaker at that holiday Christmas party – a much more appealing alternative to say, politics? The unifying qualities that people appreciate about the holiday season is everything that I think is great about the movies. They’re both a time for people to come together, discuss events, ideas, and culture with the people they (at least pretend to) care about. So even if the season of good cinema has passed you by, there’s still at least one more present waiting for you before Christmas.