When it comes to the release schedule, there are a few truisms that have become common knowledge among film fans: blockbuster movies come out in the spring and summer, horror movies get October, Oscar-worthy ones have November and December, and the truly bad stuff gets unceremoniously dumped in January and February.
There are plenty of explanations for February’s rep as a cinematic lean month: you’ve got Super Bowl weekend – traditionally, a huge weekend for premiering movie trailers, but not movies themselves (Cloverfield Paradox-style anomalies notwithstanding). Plus, there’s Valentine’s Day, holiday credit card bills finally come due, and winter weather generally makes it significantly more appealing for movie lovers to stay indoors and Netflix-and-chill under a pile of blankets. Perfectly good reasons, all.
Only, not to “well, actually” conventional wisdom here, but, well, actually… It turns out February movies aren’t as bad as we’ve been making them out to be all this time. In fact, in recent years, they’ve been better than ever. In 2019 alone, we’ve already had a pair of heavily anticipated, Certified Fresh sequels in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (92%) and The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (86%).
So, the question is this: are February releases actually getting better, or are we just falling prey to recency bias and small sample size? To figure that out, we turned to the data, going back to compare Tomatometer scores for the top 15 movies at the February box office for the past 35 years. That’s 525 movies across four decades.
In doing so, we discovered that February’s always had its fair share of big hits – beloved cult classics like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Office Space, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective all celebrated major anniversaries this month. But February offerings are also getting noticeably better: the past five years have produced more Certified Fresh movies and awards season contenders than ever before.
Here’s what else the Tomatometer data revealed about the past, present, and (hopefully) future of February movies.
The past two Februarys haven’t just given us a few good movies; they’ve produced some of their respective years’ biggest hits, like Get Out (2017, 98%) and Black Panther (2018, 97%), both Certified Fresh Golden Tomato Awards winners. Those two are the films that got us thinking about the Februar-enaissance in the first place, but it doesn’t stop there. Besides Get Out, 2017 saw a record six Certified Fresh releases – I Am Not Your Negro (98%), The Lego Batman Movie (90%), John Wick: Chapter 2 (89%), Kedi (98%), and A United Kingdom (84%), in addition to Jordan Peele’s thriller. That’s more than either March or April had that year.
Boasting an average Tomatometer score of 52% (so far), this past decade has produced some of the best February releases of all time, and it’s not even close. The 2010s saw more than a 10-point jump from the 2000s (41%) and higher average scores than either the 1990s (45%) or 1980s (46%). Or, to look at it another way, we’ve gotten exactly as many Certified Fresh movies in the past nine years as we did in the 1990s and 2000s combined. (That’d be 38 total, with 24 of those coming in the last five.)
The streak first started in 2010, which – despite not having any major hits – still got high marks, thanks to the fact that half of its releases were considered Fresh. But it was 2016 that was the decade’s best year to date, with an average Tomatometer score of 60% and Certified Fresh movies like Deadpool (84%), Hail, Caesar! (86%), The Witch (91%), Eddie the Eagle (81%), and Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next (78%) leading the way.
Even though the 2000s were lean times for February releases, you still have to go all the way back to 2003 to find a time when the month got shut out on our annual list of the year’s Top 100 movies. That’s 15 years and counting. In fact, at least one February release has landed in the Top 50 every year since 2008, and in the Top 20 since 2014.
In recent years, art house sleepers and international hits like Academy Award-winner A Fantastic Woman (93%), The Lunchbox (96%), and ‘71 (95%), as well as documentaries like The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (95%), have helped give audiences plenty of Certified Fresh options, so long as you’re willing to look beyond the month’s higher-profile wide releases.
Back in 2004, the Academy Awards telecast officially moved from March to late February. That said, just because the month now boasts Hollywood’s most prestigious awards ceremony doesn’t mean it’s been a boon for its releases’ Oscar hopes. That’s mostly because it’s a lot easier to launch a successful awards season campaign in early December than to sustain one for an entire year. But that stigma is starting to change, thanks to recent February Best Picture nominees like Get Out and Black Panther (which won three of the seven Oscars it was nominated for this year). Going back further, in 1992, The Silence of the Lambs (Certified Fresh at 96%) became only the third movie in Oscar history to sweep the Big Five (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay) despite – you guessed it – coming out the previous February.
OK, so, yes, you can go ahead and blame February for clunkers like Norbit (9%) and The Roommate (4%). But it’s also given us a few movies that we’re willing to bet might be in your personal top ten. We already name-checked beloved hits like Office Space and Bill & Ted and the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs, but there’s so much more: fan favorite comedies like Billy Madison, Old School, and Super Troopers; adrenaline-pumping martial arts movies like Rumble in the Bronx, Bloodsport, and Ong Bak; and how’s this for a blast from the past? You know all your favorite ‘80s movies – classics like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Hairspray, and Footloose? They all debuted in February, too. (Also a February release: the 1999 Brendan Fraser vehicle Blast from the Past. Just saying.)
You’d think February would be a boom time for movie romance, what with Valentine’s Day helping to get audiences in the mood. But critics were just not that into He’s Just Not That Into You (40%), or the Fifty Shades trilogy, or McConaughey/Hudson rom-coms like Fool’s Gold (11%) and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (42%), or Nicholas Sparks’ Safe Haven (13%) and Dear John (29%). If you’re looking to celebrate with a highly-rated February holiday movie, skip Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day (18%) and opt for 1993’s Groundhog Day (96%), a movie you can easily watch again and again. And again.
Aside from The LEGO Movie, which saw its sequel open to strong reviews earlier this month, February historically hasn’t been a great time for would-be franchises. Typically, when a February release performs well enough to merit a sequel, the next movie in the series gets moved to a more prime placement on the release calendar (see: Deadpool, Wayne’s World, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Goon, Kingsman: The Secret Service). And if a series premieres during a more “desirable” month, but its next installment gets pushed to February? That might as well be the kiss of death.
The month is a veritable wasteland of lesser sequels, from Zoolander 2 (22%) and Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (14%) to My Girl 2 (27%), and A Good Day to Die Hard (15%), among others. The lone exception that disproves the rule is John Wick: Chapter 2 – after successfully beating the February sequel curse with a Certified Fresh Tomatometer score of 89%, Chapter 3 will be coming out this May. (Also, if we’ve learned anything from those movies, it’s never to bet against John Wick.)
Looking over the numbers, one big reason stands out for why Tomatometer scores got so much better in the 2010s than they were in the 2000s: namely, the comic book movies got better. Even though we tend to think of superhero movies as prime summer blockbuster fare, the month of February has seen its fair share of crusading crimefighters over the years. But while proto-Marvel movies like Daredevil (44%) and Nicolas Cage’s Ghost Rider franchise dragged down their years’ respective averages, critically-acclaimed hits like Black Panther and Deadpool (and the superhero-inspired Chronicle — Certified Fresh at 85%) seriously boosted theirs.
With an average Tomatometer score of only 32%, February 2001 was one of the worst months to be a movie fan, with lackluster fare like Saving Silverman (18%), 3000 Miles to Graceland (14%), and Sweet November (15%). The following February wasn’t much better either. Thanks to the Certified Fresh Monsoon Wedding (95%), 2002 had a slightly higher Tomatometer average at 36%, but overall quality was down, with less than 15% of the monthly offerings earning a Fresh rating. Still, 1990 had it even worse – with a whopping three movies (Madhouse, Loose Cannons, and Heart Condition) all earning zeros on the Tomatometer.
On the flipside, 2017 had a trio of films all land scores of 98% or higher (Get Out, I Am Not Your Negro, and Kedi), boosting its average score to 57%. But 1993 was even better, earning top marks with a 66% Tomatometer average, thanks to an impressive run of above-average options (Strictly Ballroom – 95%, Like Water for Chocolate – 91%, Army of Darkness – 72%, and Robert Rodriguez’s breakout debut El Mariachi – 93%) alongside very few Rotten ones.
No surprises here, if you’ve been paying attention to the release calendar lately: it’s Liam Neeson. Thanks to films like Non-Stop and Unknown and this month’s Cold Pursuit, “Movies Where Liam Neeson Beats Everyone Up” might as well be its own February-specific genre. The acclaimed actor-turned-action hero has been showing up in February thrillers ever since 1992’s Under Suspicion, giving him a record-tying six February movies for an average Tomatometer score of 51%. Other February fixtures include Adam Sandler (47% over five films) and Nic Cage (24% over six films).
Love or loathed something this February – or in Februarys past? Let us know in the comments.