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Sci-Fi Movies : The Sargasso Of January
© Paul T. Riddell

The ads start roughly before Christmas, and don't let up until mid-February. The ads promise the moon and stars, and they tempt. Oh boy, they tempt. They convince otherwise rational people to partake of their forbidden pleasures, and they keep promising until they've snared enough suckers, after which they disappear. No, we're not talking about the latest wave of dotcoms trying to snag some business before the board of directors scoot to Rio and leave the bills for the creditors; we're talking about the January movie dumping season.

Back in the old days, before 1984, the movie industry had two traditional dumping seasons, where studios would do their best to pawn off their marginal titles. We're talking about the films that cost a little too much to be consigned to a shelf somewhere, but bad enough that pushing for a full release during summer or Christmas was suicide. Back then, we had two dumping seasons: mid-October, when the big summer films finally start disappearing due to lack of interest, and January, when cabin fever after Christmas convinces millions that anything is better than staying home and watching reruns of Frasier. 1984 helped destroy the idea of the October dumping season when The Terminator came out of nowhere and convinced studio execs that a decent film could make a killing in the fall. Anybody who thought The Terminator was a fluke was converted when Crocodile Dundee came along two years later and took the fall moviegoing season away from the art films. Ever since 1986, fall is considered the third big season: considering the number of college and high school students looking for an escape from class after the beginning of the school year, spring break is now relegated to dumping otherwise unreleasable animated films on parents desperate to get their screaming children out of the house for at least an hour or so.

These days, the really bad films go directly to video or DVD in the hopes of scamming a few bucks from Blockbuster Video customers who don't know any better, so the films being dumped aren't the really awful atrocities along the line of The Demonoid. These usually star big-name actors such as Denzel Washington or Gary Sinese, and these folks aren't cheap, so throwing a finished film starring Famke Jannsen onto the storage room shelf will put the production company behind just a bit. However, someone's focus group testing showed that the fifteen twits willing to volunteer for audience surveys at the local shopping mall didn't like the subject matter, or the movie cost so damn much for so little that the studio developing it figures that spending serious money to promote it is a waste. Advertising during Christmas is serious money, so buying up a saturation ad campaign in January is cheap, seeing as how innumerable broadcast and cable channels are almost literally giving the time away.

And thus comes the reference to the January Sargasso. For those without an oceanography background, the Sargasso Sea is a large stretch in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean formed by the circulation of the Gulf Stream up the coast of North America and down the coast of Europe. The Sargasso Sea is full of sargassum weed, a floating seaweed, drawn there by prevailing currents along with other oceanic detritus. Derelict but still seaworthy ships would be drawn there from time to time, and sailors' legends held that ships that traveled into the Sargasso would find themselves trapped in the weed, unable to leave, ultimately leading to the crew dying of starvation or insanity. Considering the films generally released during January, many of the people involved can appreciate the metaphor.

Now that we've established that January is a no-man's-land for films, and considering that the vast majority of those lousy films are going to be science fiction, fantasy, and horror films, what to do? The typical skiffy dweeb (what is referred to in the comics industry as "Cat Piss Man", because these characters tend to smell like they sleep in a litter box) won't care, because even a godawful genre film is still a genre film. It is hoped, however, that Cat Piss Man isn't the sole representative taxon in the fannish ecosystem, and not all of us like to live off the waste products and other effluvia of the movie industry. Because of this, following are some of the surefire ways to spot the occasional pearls in the sea of sewage. The idea isn't so much that we're looking for treasure: most of the denizens of the January Sargasso aren't great films by any stretch of the imagination, but they generally beat the rest of the pack by an appreciable margin.

Cover Stories

Numero Uno: if the release coincides with a cover story in a genre movie magazine, it's a dump. As a general rule, studio publicists only contact the editors and writers of Starlog, SCI FI, and Cinescape when they've been rebuffed by every other news venue on the planet. Likewise, considering that the fanboys at Entertainment Weekly usually get first dibs on interviews with the cast and crew of the big productions, the genre magazines don't have the influence they used to have. Of course, that isn't saying much, but these days the genre magazines get a bit less respect than The National Enquirer and a bit more than The Watchtower when it comes to publicity consideration.

This said, the January Sargasso is catnip to the crews at these three magazines, because publicists who previously wouldn't bother to return phone calls are suddenly kicking the doors down in the hopes of selling their latest stinker. The star reporter at SCI FI told that there's no press accreditation for Star Wars: Episode One? No problem, because the same flunky keeping the reporter away from George Lucas at all costs is more that willing to arrange a full on-set interview with the cast and crew of Supernova! Even nasty reportage won't affect the bright and cheery smiles of these publicists, because if the film is that bad, even bad publicity might draw in a few more paying customers before this carcass is cut loose and steered toward HBO. In return, the magazine staffs are so glad that someone is recognizing them for their genius that the final article will probably end up on the front cover, alongside seven or eight pages of gushing commentary that never once mentions that the movie went through eight directors and forty screenwriters before the producer's son finished it so he could get his Director's Guild card.

(As a corollary, want a good gauge of what the worst films due out are going to be, no matter what the time of year? Look to SCI FI. If Starlog and Fangoria cover anything, rest assured that the movies are going straight to video, if they ever get released at all; Fangoria in particular is notorious for publishing ecstatic write-ups on films you'll never see . . . because they're some college student's Super-8 project. Until recently, most of the smaller films covered by Cinefantastique were the same way, especially since the editor/publisher saw nothing wrong with letting directors or producers write up their own takes on the production. Cinescape at least has enough LA connections that it can snag a bit of real news from time to time, even if its staff is far too obsessed with the Austin Powers series, anything also being covered by Ain't-It-Cool News, and the alleged genius of Mark Altman for safety. SCI FI, though, has an incredible propensity for missing the surprise hits of a given year because it was too busy covering the absolute tripe. No coverage of The Blair Witch Project but plenty of coverage of Blair Witch 2, and way too many trees killed for coverage of Battlefield Earth, Titan A.E., Dungeons & Dragons, and End of Days, among many others. If "exclusive" coverage of a film appears in both SCI FI and Cinescape, run for the hills.)

Continued . . .
--Paul T. Riddell actually hopes to see some decent films in January. While he's at it, he also wishes for a pet dinosaur. To see his collection of other imaginary animals, check out "The Healing Power of Obnoxiousness" at http://www.hpoo.com.

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