At the multiplex, the start of the new year is like a splash of cold water to the face, a bracing reminder that the highs of December are chased by the dregs of January. Coming right after the previous year's Oscar season closes, January functions as a clearinghouse for studios looking to unload their embarrassments. Of course, no one deliberately sets out to make a flop: Behind every head-slapping decision, there's a money-making rationale that's either deeply cynical or just as deeply misguided. Among the wreckage of Januarys past, certain patterns and formulas have emerged to help explain these debacles. So if the Max Bialystocks of the future want to deliberately lay an egg, here are a few suggestions:
Hire Uwe Boll to direct. Nicknamed "The Master Of Error," Boll specializes in the lowest form of moviemaking—the video-game adaptation—and nobody does it more ineptly. He started with the Sega zombie favorite House Of The Dead (2003), which actually included an onscreen prompt to "reload," and his subsequent turkeys have lately become a New Year's tradition. First, there was last year's Alone In The Dark, which features the longest and most baffling opening crawl in cinema history, and stars a rehab clinic's worth of damaged actors, including Stephen Dorff, Christian Slater, and Tara Reid as a bookish-but-sexy paleontologist. (Glasses on, smart. Glasses off, ready to party.) His latest is Bloodrayne, starring Lady Terminator Kristanna Loken and easily the weirdest supporting cast in recent memory: Michael Madsen, Ben Kingsley, Billy Zane, Meat Loaf, Udo Kier, and Michael Paré. How about releasing the making-of documentary instead?
Cast Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher has a bomb for all seasons, but he's been a January man several times in his young career, and there's no doubt he will be again in the future. He's the Suzanne Somers of his generation, a ditzy TV star whose talents are better employed selling Thighmasters to metrosexuals than in antics on the big screen. In his defense, some of those early-year flops can't rest entirely on his shoulders: 2000's Down To You was given over mostly to Freddie Prinze Jr., who may actually be less talented than Kutcher, and even Cary Grant couldn't have redeemed 2003's Just Married, in which Kutcher and Brittany Murphy turn their honeymoon into a Three Stooges routine. As for the 2004 brain-teaser The Butterfly Effect (not a flop, but not a good movie either), there are nearly half a dozen Kutchers to blame, including frat-boy Kutcher, jailhouse Kutcher, and amputee Kutcher, who crushes a granola bar between his wooden prosthetic fingers.
Tug too hard on the heartstrings. After the Christmas season, a little sentiment goes a long way, so any more sugar in the bloodstream could lead to hyperglycemia. Audiences embraced Love Story back in 1970, but the doe-eyed affair in 2002's A Walk To Remember pushes it one step further by having its virginal Christian heroine (Mandy Moore) get married before the cancer metastasizes. And who knew trash author Jacqueline Susann, of Valley Of The Dolls infamy, fought her own private battle with cancer while taking care of her autistic son until Bette Midler played her, with nauseating brassiness, in 2000's Isn't She Great? An ill-advised 1999 remake of John Cassavetes' Gloria led to the gruesome spectacle of Sharon Stone as a streetwise, profane, mobbed-up hussy who has her heart melted by an adorable six-year-old urchin. Experimental surgery leads a blind masseuse (Val Kilmer) to see again in 1999's At First Sight, but the dialogue regularly suggests that he can't see with his eyes if his heart is blind.
Overestimate the appeal of unproven stars. Somewhere between a Hall Of Fame NFL career and those annoying Radio Shack commercials with Teri Hatcher lies Howie Long, who was going to be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger. The result? Firestorm, the 1998 story of a daredevil firefighter who leaps unwittingly into a blaze, only to discover his fellow "smoke jumpers" are escaped convicts. Then there's 1999's The Big Tease, a mock-documentary about hairdressing starring then-unknown Craig Ferguson, who's now only slightly better known as the host of The Late Late Show. Or who better to fend off a large creature than 50-pound actress Penelope Ann Miller, star of 1997's The Relic?
Hype the next extreme sports craze on two wheels. The makers of 2004's Torque were likely hoping the line "I live my life a quarter-mile at a time" would set off a wave of teenage rebellion unseen since Marlon Brando's "Whaddya got?" in The Wild One. But when it comes from a dude wearing a leather jumpsuit with the slogan "Carpe Diem" emblazoned on the back, all credibility goes out the window long before the Pepsi-sponsored motorcycle showdown. Same goes for that other Fast And The Furious knockoff, 2003's Biker Boyz, which blows its cool from the title alone.
Bring that comedy in at under 90 minutes. American studio comedies have become so bloated since the Marx brothers' heyday that when any non-animated production slides in under the magical 90-minute mark, it usually means it screened disastrously and has been slashed within an inch of its life. More trimming would still improve 1997's Beverly Hills Ninja, 1998's Half-Baked, and 2004's My Baby's Daddy—collectively, they don't have enough good material to fill out a Saturday Night Live sketch. If there were a way to refashion them as haiku…
Above all, don't screen the movie in advance for critics. Tack on a few quotes from reliable sources like Earl Dittman (The Cave: "Spine-tingling!" King's Ransom: "Sidesplitting!") or Sony's ghostly David Manning, guard all prints like a lady's virtue until opening day, and let silence be your toxic word of mouth. Or as an optimistic press release once put it, let "critics and audiences discover the movie together."