"Sagging Box Office Looks for a Christmas Miracle," read a recent headline in the online magazine The Wrap. That's odd because we still take for granted that movies are inextricably tied with the experience of Christmas, even though few films have anything to do with the holiday.
Yet this year more than ever, the studios have thrown all their chips on the last few days of the calendar year, hoping to break out of a month-long slump that left box-office grosses lagging about $900-million behind last year year's revenues.
Five major films are opening this week, with numerous smaller films either opening or going into more theatres. Leading the charge are a couple of thrillers: the Tom Cruise film Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Close behind is Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin and Cameron Crowe's We Bought A Zoo.
On Christmas Day, we'll get yet another Spielberg film, War Horse, along with the post-9/11 family drama and possible Oscar contender Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. For those who found Christmas dinner weight enough, there's the sci-fi thriller The Darkest Hour.
None of these films have anything to do with the holiday, either in the religious or secular sense, which is entirely typical for movies at this time of year. Over the years, Dec. 25 has seen the release of such improbable films as The Bucket List, Valkyrie and even the porn trial drama The People Vs. Larry Flint. Look at the 15 top-grossing Christmas Day films of all time, starting with 2009's Sherlock Holmes, and you'll see that none of them are related to the occasion.
As a subject for movies, Christmas tends to peak around American Thanksgiving, but it has been in sharp decline in the 2000s. In her 1996 book Christmas in America, historian Penne L. Restad said at least a quarter of all Hollywood films to that time managed to work in some brief image or mention of Christmas as an emotional shortcut to represent family and tradition.
Not any more, as Hollywood has become dependent on international markets such as China and Russia, which now account for about two-thirds of total box-office revenues. Holiday-themed DVDs can quickly seem out of date.
So who goes to Christmas Day movies? Traditionally, Dec. 25 has been a good day for non-Christians to patronize the businesses that remained open on the holiday. But in the last decade, a lot of other people got the same idea. In 2008, for example, Christmas was the fourth top-grossing box-office day of the year, and the Christmas week and week after have consistently been the most popular movie-going season of the year.
In essence, studios view the Christmas-New Year's holidays as a lucrative and extended opening weekend. Blockbusters like Mission: Impossible and Dragon Tattoo will get a big launch; upscale films such as War Horse and Extremely Loud can begin their Oscar campaigns; and mediocre films will be there to serve as counter-programming.
Think back to Hilary Swank' s 2007 romantic melodrama P.S. I Love You, which leaked into the theatres with a soft $6.5-million opening four days before Christmas. Any other time of year, the movie would have died quietly after such an anemic start, but it gained momentum (it eventually earned more than $150-million worldwide) as an alternative to such demanding fare as There Will Be Blood and The Kite Runner, not to mention that year's Christmas Day release, Alien vs. Predator – Requiem, which, despite its title, was not a religious movie.
Though Christmas movies typically have nothing to do with the holiday, it does seem to be a time of year that often finds audiences in a particularly charitable frame of mind. Which is why, for the Hollywood studios, Christmas can't come soon enough this year.