Flashback: The #1 grossing film for January 2023 was “Avatar: The Way of Water.” In January 2022, it was “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Both films were #1 on the last weekend of the month as well as the first.

Contrast that with “Wonka” (Warner Bros.), which is a clear success headed for a worldwide gross of over $500 million — but isn’t remotely in the same league. That explains why January is more than 20 percent below last year, but this month has a chance to succeed if it does something entirely different.

Yes, 2024 needs franchise titles and sequels to carry their weight; “Dune Part 2,” “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” and “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” all arrive in March. However, to rise above the year’s grim $8 billion projection for domestic gross (down 12 percent from 2023), a whole slew of standalone titles must thrive.

Enter the weekend of January 12. The four-day Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday traditionally boosts grosses, but this year features something very unusual. The period usually offers two new wide studio films and this year there’s three: “Mean Girls” (Paramount), “The Beekeeper” (MGM Amazon), and “The Book of Clarence” (Sony). And they’re all originals.

Jason Statham in The Beekeeper
“The Beekeeper“Amazon MGM Studios

These, plus holdovers (including the surging “Anyone but You,” the top grossing film midweek) and expansions of more limited titles (led by MGM Amazon’s “American Fiction“), could equal the $106 million total of this period in 2022, even without despite a strong Christmas holdover.

That would be a shot in the arm for exhibitors and for studios’ strategies. The three new films combined have a reported production cost under $125 million (the cost of “Wonka,” a lower-end price tag for a major title). And “Mean Girls,” the adaptation of Tina Fey’s Broadway musical (based on the 2004 comedy), was originally slated to go straight to streaming on Paramount+. It suggest a real trend shift.

“Mean Girls” is expected to be #1, with a range of $25 million-$30 million projected for three days and Monday could add another 20 percent. That’s on a reported budget of $36 million. Like “Barbie” (though on a much smaller scale), it is a rendering of a popular property and a comedy with strong female appeal.

The holiday weekend often sees the release of a male-oriented action film (“The Commuter,” “xXx”) and films centered around Black characters (“Ride Along,” “The Upside”). Both slots are filled this year, with “The Beekeeper” with Jason Statham and “The Book of Clarence” with LaKeith Stanfield.

“The Beekeeper,” the latest action film with a loner fighting for justice against forces of evil, is projected to gross over $15 million. “Clarence,” a hybrid comedy-drama set in the time of Christ with the title character trying to reset his life by claiming to be an alternative messiah, should be closer to $10 million.

Clarence (Lakeith Stanfield), Barabbas (Omar Sy) and Elijah (R.J. Cyler) in THE BOOK OF CLARENCE.
“The Book of Clarence”© 2023 Legendary Entertainment / MORIS PUCCIO

“American Fiction” will be the biggest expansion among previously limited titles. Cord Jefferson’s SAG Best Ensemble Cast-nominated film will rise to 625 theaters from 110, with over $3 million grossed so far. It leads the charge of other titles (among them “Poor Things,” “The Zone of Interest,” “All of Us Strangers,” “Origin,” and the already wide “The Color Purple”) that hope to thrive after Oscar nominations are announced on January 23. That will be another important test of improved fortunes and needed boosts for theaters.

Last year’s award season saw numerous acclaimed contenders like “The Fabelmans,” “The Whale,” “The Banshees of Inisherin” fail to gross $20 million, with Best Picture nominees “Tár” and “Women Talking” under $7 million. This year, blockbusters “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” are among prime contenders but their theatrical time has passed. It would help early box office 2024 prospects improve if there were a rebound in nomination impact.

With Bleecker Street’s sci-fi thriller “I.S.S.” the sole other wide release this month (January 19), it will be a struggle to reach last year’s total of just under $600 million. But since more than a third of that came from “Avatar,” coming close would reflect well on new offerings this month as well as the contributions of other smaller titles.

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