Once considered the year's least fertile cinematic soil, January has now transitioned into a sort of mini-summer, with a Michael Bay film and two big sequels looking like they wouldn't be out of place in June. The rest of the slate is much more January-esque, with science fiction, more animation, a western, and the inevitable PG-13 horror films.
January 2016 Forecast
By Michael Lynderey
January 7, 2016
1. Kung Fu Panda 3 (January 29th)
The Kung Fu Panda franchise began in sunny days, with great reviews and a bigger-than-expected opening weekend ($60 million in June 2008), proceeded with a respectable total ($215 million for that first film), and then encountered an unexpected setback, with a 2011 sequel that was just about as well reviewed as the original, but had somehow grossed not more, but less, taking in $165 million after a lower opening. In some ways, this downturn of events, which remains pretty much unexplained, echoes one of DreamWorks' other big CGI franchises, the How to Train Your Dragon films. The Dragon is taking a time out for a few years, but the Panda is back right now, and he’s got a bold release date strategy, an attempt to test the theory that a film with a big, pre-ordained audience can do well at any time of the year: Panda 3 isn't staking out the Martin Luther King, Jr. four-day holiday weekend on the 15th, leaving that to another animated film, Norm of the North, and has instead been slated into what would otherwise appear to be a generic late-January weekend, with no bells and whistles around to explain quite what a big-name CGI movie is doing there. Jack Black returns to voice the overweight black-and-white creature of the title, joined by some choice new co-stars like Rebel Wilson and soon-to-be Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston (any day now). Not much else is different in this third iteration, and It's tough to gauge how many fans the franchise retains after all these years, but they're likely to be numerous enough to re-arrange expectations about late January scheduling.
Opening weekend: $38 million / Total gross: $131 million
2. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (January 15th)
What’s likely to be the most controversial film of the month is one that arrives in no uncoincidental terms during what promises to be a particularly intense presidential primary season. 13 Hours is, more important for our purposes, the fourth consecutive film in what has now become an unofficial mid-January tradition: after Zero Dark Thirty successfully expanded on January 11, 2013, Lone Survivor became a huge breakout hit on January 10, 2014, and then American Sniper expanded wide on January 16, 2015 to numbers that almost bested Lone Survivor's total gross in a couple of days, it’s clear that studios have settled on mid-January as the perfect release date for military films that tackle recent events with a strong patriotic visage. The aforementioned films were helmed by Kathryn Bigelow, Peter Berg, and Clint Eastwood, respectively, all known for testosterone, but 13 Hours has at its helm no less than Michael Bay himself, a man whose name ought to somehow be an anagram of "blockbuster." The film's trailers promise his brand of frenetic action in a take on the politically-charged tragedy of the Libyan embassy attacks of September 11, 2012, and the cast is good, with an action turn by John Krasinski (who was once up to play Captain America), surrounded by character actors like James Badge Dale, David Denman, and Pablo Schreiber. Other than looking at the big war films of the three Januaries past, it's tough to pinpoint 13 Hours' floor and ceiling, but between the holiday weekend release date, the in-the-news plot, and what is usually reported as the military fervor of many audience members, the film will likely at least put up a good fight to win the month from that big fat panda.
Opening weekend: $48 million (4-day) / Total gross: $125 million
3. Ride Along 2 (January 15th)
Kevin Hart returns to the well of what is unquestionably his biggest success as a lead actor, Ride Along, the buddy action comedy that seemed to come out of nowhere just two short Januaries ago to open with $41 million and finish with a frankly gargantuan $134 million (yes, those are good legs! And I would have predicted less than half than that, if pressed). Hart's worked hard and often in the two years since, and between his films About Last Night, Think Like a Man, Too, The Wedding Planner, and Get Hard, oversaturation has likely creeped in to one degree or another. His co-star Ice Cube led a big cultural moment last year with biopic Straight Outta Compton, adding capital to this film in an unexpected way. Still, Ride Along was Kevin Hart's first real starring role, it filled a need that was clearly there, and I think expecting the sequel to replicate the original's numbers is too lofty a target. Reviews might not be great, but they didn't much matter the first time, and they likely won't particularly change the box office outcome here, either. Ride Along 2 should still do very well on its targeted holiday weekend.
Opening weekend: $37 million (4-day) / Total gross: $87 million
4. The Finest Hours (January 29th)
January's other based-on-a-real-event thriller is also, after Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea, the second film in as many months about the crew of a large New England vessel who encounter catastrophe at sea. This is the one without the big fish. I'd expect higher numbers from The Finest Hours, though the unkind fate that befell the Howard picture ($23 million at the box office so far, on a $100 million budget) is particularly troubling (in fact, between Exodus and the Sea film, it seems like the second weekend of December is turning into a dangerous spot for historical epics). Anyway, this time around, Chris Pine stars, with a supporting cast smorgasborded by the likes of Casey Affleck, Eric Bana, and Ben Foster, playing unlucky crewmen trapped in a storm off the coast of 1952 Massachusetts (as the poster gravely informs us: "32 survivors, room for 12"). The film has a vaguely patriotic sheen and appears noble and heroic in all the right ways, though some of its target demographic might be otherwise engaged with the likes of 13 Hours. The Finest Hours also has the Disney brand behind it, which might help it acquire very good legs if it's well reviewed, and a lack of particularly objectionable material could make it an agreeable family film offering.
Opening weekend: $17 million / Total gross: $55 million
5. Norm of the North (January 15th)
This 3D adventure appears to exist on the release schedule primarily to fill the children's film niche that’s become kind of mandatory on the big Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday weekend (see Paddington last year). The tale of an arctic bear who travels to unfamiliar and foreboding New York City (calling him a "fish out of water" would be offensive to all those underwater denizens the bear has surely consumed) stars the vocal intonations of an eclectic batch of character actors, like Rob Schneider, Ken Jeong, Heather Graham, Loretta Devine, and the irreplaceable Bill Nighy, and it comes from a studio, Lionsgate, with some experience releasing these mid-level titles. Nothing about Norm of the North seems to be particularly distinguished, but its release date is indeed well chosen, many weeks after the last big animated film; and if The Nut Job could take in $19 million on the same weekend, Norm of the Norm should be close enough behind, even if there's no question that a different breed of bear will overshadow it by month's end.
Opening weekend: $15 million (4-day) / Total gross: $43 million
6. Dirty Grandpa (January 22nd)
Not to be confused with the Jackass crew's ribald tribute to lunacy, Bad Grandpa, this relatively more down-to-earth exploitation of the elders among us teams upstart Zac Efron and stalwart Robert De Niro, perhaps not the first two people you'd peg as relatives, and has them embark into one of my favorite genres, the road trip picture. Dirty Grandpa is the first of three big Efron comedies this year, with his upcoming two, Neighbors 2 and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, scheduled out at intervals of several months each. Efron seems to succeed opposite established co-stars, and De Niro had a big hit not so long ago with The Intern, where another unlikely pairing (with Anne Hathaway) led to some successful chemistry. Dirty Grandpa should do well enough, even if it won't necessarily break out, but one thing about the film is unquestionably very, very funny: the early teaser poster, a play on the most famous image from The Graduate, is pretty brilliant, even if the joke might be lost on much of the film's younger audience.
Opening weekend: $14 million / Total gross: $38 million
7. The Forest (January 8th)
Natalie Dormer, most recently seen participating in harried revolutionary activity in The Hunger Games 4, does the honors of ushering in the New Year in headlining the very first wide release of 2016. These early January horror films - usually involving some of sort of vengeful, unhappy ghost - have been a tradition going back, oh, 11 years ago, when Michael Keaton had a career resurgence headlining White Noise, a PG-13 rated ghost story, to a ridiculous $24 million opening on January 7, 2005 (that's over $30 million in today's dollars, and yes, the movie ultimately out-grossed Birdman; did you even have to ask?). The Forest seems to follow well enough in those footsteps, and further in the spirit of titles such as One Missed Call (2008) and last year's opener The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, which had a shockingly high $15 million weekend before petering out at a total gross just $11 million more than that. But let's get more specific: The Forest has a really intriguing premise and an inspired setting, a real Japanese forest, Aokigahara, known as a one-way destination for those who wish to commit suicide. Aokigahara, which carries the nickname "Suicide Forest," has inspired a couple of previous, little-seen movies, as well as this film's ironic tagline, "Everyone comes here looking for a way out." I assume it's not going to be a runaway like White Noise, but The Forest should earn its keep.
Opening weekend: $14 million / Total gross: $34 million
8. The 5th Wave (January 22nd)
The latest gaggle of mal-intentioned invaders from outer space ransacks earth, and the only one who could possibly stand in their way is Chloë Grace Moretz (…that doesn't sound right somehow, but she's packing what looks like a semi-automatic on one of the posters, so maybe). What looks to be another of the month's mid-level genre titles is this adaptation of a 2013 young adult sci-fi novel of the same name, a hoped-for franchise-starter about teenagers in a world that has again lapsed into a post-apocalyptic setting. Moretz previously carried another successful young adult adaptation, If I Stay, a surprise hit in August 2014 that took in a more-than-respectable $50 million total, and there are other rising actors here, like Nick Robinson of Jurassic World and Maika Monroe, who fought off that yucky creature in It Follows. Looking at the big pond that The 5th Wave inhabits, one can see that the young adult genre successfully recovered from its 2013 slump in 2014, though all three 2015 sequels to 2014 YA films (Divergent, Maze Runner, Hunger Games) finished on the lower ends of various expectations. The 5th Wave somewhat recalls another alien invasion tale with young actors, Stephenie Meyer's The Host, which fluttered through 2013 without connecting, so I'll be modest in my prediction, although it's entirely possible I'm undercounting this film's target audience (who may well number in the many millions, for all I know).
Opening weekend: $13 million / Total gross: $29 million
9. Fifty Shades of Black (January 29th)
Obvious joke, but it’s still a funny title. This parody stars Marlon Wayans, who with some of his Wayans siblings had previously spearheaded Scary Movie to success, and has since quietly etched out a niche of almost underground spoof films. This is the third one in as many years, following right behind A Haunted House, which had some very funny scenes and somehow opened above Gangster Squad in January 2013, and the thereafter-inevitable A Haunted House 2, which was much more of a blimp a little over a year later. The target of the parody this time is obvious, though it's Wayans' bad luck there isn't a new Fifty Shades sequel opening this year (if there’s any justice, some of that franchise’s fans will mistake this for a new entry and readily attend). Wayans must have developed a somewhat consistently loyal audience by now, and if enough of them turn out, this de-facto Haunted House sequel ought to come in somewhere in between his last two spoofs.
Opening weekend: $14 million / Total gross: $27 million
10. The Boy (January 22nd)
The month’s second horror film also carries a distinctly creepy premise, about a childlike porcelain figurine that may not be totally inanimate. In its story of an entrepreneurial 20-something perusing an unhygienic British mansion inhabited by supernatural phenomena, The Boy recalls Daniel Radcliffe's The Woman in Black, a film whose success The Boy would surely be happy to replicate. These PG-13 horror films called "The" are getting hard to predict just right (The Visit did very well just recently), but The Boy doesn't have the release date advantage of The Forest, which is first-past-the gate this year. Still, that memorably frightening doll is prominent in the marketing, and a successful and ubiquitous advertising campaign over the next few weeks is all it would take to double the numbers I'm scribbling down for it right now.
Opening weekend: $11 million / Total gross: $26 million
11. Jane Got a Gun (January 29th)
This western was spearheaded to the screen by Natalie Portman, who stars alongside Ewan McGregor, Joel Edgerton, and other notables. Jane Got a Gun is actually Portman's first lead role in a major film since all the way back to No Strings Attached five years ago, not counting a Thor or two in between. She may have been missed, and while many westerns have broken out to spectacular numbers in the last 20 years (and The Hateful Eight is doing pretty well, too), I'm not sure how big the incoming audience is this time. As its title doesn’t hesitate to imply, there's a sort of feminist bent at play, rare for the genre outside of films like 1994's Bad Girls, and that's notable. But barring strong reviews or a feverish marketing push, either of which could be in the cards, it's hard to slot the film anywhere else but #11.
Opening weekend: $8 million / Total gross: $24 million