Looking to see a nice Christmas movie this year? Forget it. There aren't any and there won't be many next year either.
The total output of festive cheer this season from Hollywood movies consist of one scene in Little Fockers, a combined Hanukkah-Christmas gathering. Outside of Hollywood product, there's the limited release Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a satire from Finland about archaeologists releasing the original evil Santa from an ice-bound prison, and Andrei Konchalovsky's misguided The Nutcracker in 3D, which treats the Christmas story as a Holocaust allegory.
Something substantial has changed. As recently as 1996, in her book Christmas in America, historian Penne L. Restad estimated that at least a quarter of Hollywood films managed to work in some brief image of Christmas as an emotional short-cut for family togetherness, home and hope. Mark Connelly, editor of a collection of academic essays, Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American, British and European Cinema, argues that the movies gave the holiday global recognition: "The reason why Christmas is known everywhere is simple - cinema."
What happened? According to a recent article in Los Angeles Times, the shift came after 2006, when there were a surfeit of Christmas films that did not do especially well at the box office. Last year, Robert Zemeckis's expensive 3-D version of A Christmas Carol flopped.
The explanation seems to be a change in the way in which contemporary family movies are made and marketed. Studios have discovered they can gain greater rewards from fantasy films such as Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and Toy Story 3 that don't come with a post-Christmas expiry date. Studios don't like to be pinned down to opening films during a specific time-frame - and then have to wait a year before the DVD cane be released.
Another factor is that American movies now earn much of their profit overseas. While Christmas may be known around the world, its emotional importance is with Anglo-American audiences. The movies were the descendants of Victorian fiction, and it was the Victorians who created Christmas as we know it. Charles Dickens' 1843 story, A Christmas Carol, with its humanist, not explicitly religious message of family values and charity, has remained a dominant template for Hollywood's version of Christmas.
Although there are examples that go back well into the silent era, the Christmas movie came into its own during the Second World War. American films tended to treat Christmas as a fairyland of plenty (appealing to homesick soldiers) while the British films emphasized Christmas as a time of families struggling to face the wartime crisis.
Supernatural elements and Santa Claus were more post-war phenomena. Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, the mid-20th-century version of A Christmas Carol, became a holiday television staple. Miracle on 34th Street, which came out a year later, is another model: A cautionary parable about the acquisitive consumer society, it has been remade three times as a Christmas movie. The Tim Allen Santa Clause series shares a similar exploration of consumerism vs. generosity.
Hollywood's global business strategies aside, it may simply be that Christmas, a favourite cultural battleground for the liberal left and Christian right, has become just too controversial for Hollywood. Whether movies ignore or include the religious message, they're bound to annoy someone.
For a taste of a truly up-to-date, angry and unintentionally funny Christmas movie, you might want to check out the trailer for Christmas with a Capital C. The straight-to-DVD film (due out in 2011) is set in a Christian Alaskan community where the new atheist mayor (Daniel Baldwin) wants to shut down the traditional nativity scene. Despite the yuletide setting, this has less to do with jolly old St. Nick than that new folk hero, Mama Grizzly, Sarah Palin.