With the Oscar season over and summer blockbusters still two months away, movie fans are suffering through the dog days of film releases, that time of year when "Starsky & Hutch" is the best thing out there.

January, February and March are when Hollywood traditionally debuts its holdovers, not-so-funny comedies and mindless action flicks. But Tinseltown now may be starting to notice that audiences are thirsty for quality flicks year-round.

"The first part of the year is a dumping ground," said Brandon Gray, founder of Boxofficemojo.com. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. The movie studios don’t release their most high-profile projects at this time of year. They save them for the summer or the holidays. It's been reinforced because they keep doing it."

Last month, in just one uninspiring weekend, studios unleashed such mediocre fare as "Against the Ropes," "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen," "Welcome to Mooseport" and "Eurotrip." The reviews — and the box office sales — were about as exciting as unbuttered popcorn and flat soda.

"Anytime you have four or five new wide releases in a weekend, that tells you none of those movies were thought of as serious contenders for big box office," said Gray.

Other notoriously schlocky films to debut in January through March include the current disappointment "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," as well as past flicks such as "Varsity Blues," "Porky's Revenge (Part III)" "Friday the 13th, Part V," "Fletch Lives," "Joe Versus the Volcano," "Death to Smoochy," "Crossroads" and "View From the Top."

Matt Kozlowski, a movie fan from Houston, said he's always been aware of the dearth of worthwhile movies in the early months of the year, and 2004 is not much different.

"There really are way fewer choices as far as I'm concerned," he said. "Even just looking up to see movies I might want to go see, I don't see much."

New York University Professor Robert Brown pointed out that worthy foreign and independent films come out early in the year, but Hollywood's less commercial flicks fall into that timeslot. It’s the movie release version of typecasting.

"It’s the same way that nitwit movies will come out before September 1 and Meryl Streep films will come after September 1," said Brown who teaches Movies 101. "There is less competition…. Around Christmas, three or four movies are opening every Friday. Films can easily get lost."

However, experts cite "The Passion of the Christ," (search) Mel Gibson’s controversial and wildly financially successful film, as evidence that audiences will come to the movieplex even in the cold, dark months of winter if something's getting a lot of buzz.

"’The Passion’ is a movie people have been making special efforts to go see," said Robert Thompson, who heads up the Center for Popular Culture (search) at Syracuse University. "Being released when it did, its biggest competition are movies that are nominated for Oscars, and those have been out for a while."

Kozlowski, for one, sought out "The Passion" to see what all the fuss was about.

"It's making as much or even more than most summer blockbuster movies make," he said of the film, which passed the $200 million mark over the weekend. "If there's something [Hollywood] is going to put out that's good enough, lots of people will go see it."

Moviegoer Mark Curtis, 40, of Boise, Idaho, said he too saw "The Passion," but is generally frustrated with the sub-par choices Hollywood churns out in the early months of the year.

"It doesn’t matter to me what time of year it is. If there were more good movies out, I’d be seeing more movies," he said.

Gray pointed out that the tide has slowly been changing over the last few years, as Hollywood has started to realize a bundle can be made in those months.

This year, "Along Came Polly" and "50 First Dates" were examples of financially successful films with early release dates. Other successful films that have come out early in the year include "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Witness" and "Erin Brockovich."

The major reason that the first three months of the year don’t get much attention is because studios want audiences to focus on Oscar-nominated films, which are largely released in November and December. In addition, summer is the time for blockbusters like "Spider-Man," so the pre-summer months have become the home for less thrilling movies.

But Kozlowski said he gets tired of all the Oscar hype and is ready for something new by the time he flips his calendar to February.

"You kind of get burned out once Oscars roll around," he said. "It's like a good song you hear on the radio. After you hear it 10 billion times you get sick of it."

There is hope for movie fans though, said Gray. As Hollywood catches onto the potential to make money on early releases, audiences will get more and more exciting choices all year round.

"'The Passion of the Christ' may teach them a lesson," he said. "[Those months] are becoming prime movie real estate."