If it were up to movie distributors, Christmas would never fall on a Sunday. But this year it does.
The holiday signals the beginning of the biggest filmgoing week of the year and is a great launching pad for movies with strong adult appeal such as last year's "Grumpy Old Men" and 1990's "Godfather III," according to Columbia/TriStar distribution head Jeff Blake.
But the Sunday holiday alters the picture. Normally, most films are released on Wednesday or Friday. And, Christmas Day moviegoing usually doesn't begin in earnest until that evening after presents are open and dinners eaten. This year, an unprecedented seven films will vie for that audience on Sunday, Dec. 25: the romantic comedy "I.Q.," starring Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins; the remake of "Little Women," with Winona Ryder; Robert Benton's comedy-drama "Nobody's Fool," featuring Paul Newman and Bruce Willis; the baseball biography "Cobb," with Tommy Lee Jones in the title role; the Beethoven-era romance "Immortal Beloved," starring Gary Oldman; Roman Polanski's adaptation of "Death and the Maiden," with Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley; and the family drama "Safe Passage," with Susan Sarandon.
All of these offerings, only two of which are national releases, follow on the heels of another seven films set to debut the previous Wednesday and Friday. Fanning out in more than 1,000 theaters on Dec. 21 are Disney's live-action "Jungle Book"; "Richie Rich," starring Macaulay Culkin; and Robert Altman's fashion comedy "Pret-a-Porter."
Two days later, the Jean-Claude Van Damme actioner "Streetfighter" bows nationally along with three limited-run movies: the period dramas "Restoration," starring Robert Downey Jr. and Hugh Grant; "Queen Margot," with Isabelle Adjani; and "Colonel Chabert," starring Gerard Depardieu.
Any way you slice it, six wide releases in the period of five days will result in a heightened contest for the audience's attention, especially since little business will be done in the last few shopping days before Christmas. The latecomers will also have to fight for space with several other high-profile December releases such as the drama "Nell," starring Jodie Foster, and the romantic comedy "Speechless," pairing Geena Davis and Michael Keaton, to mention just two.
The strategy of Christmas Day release is to avoid any December dog days. As Fine Line Pictures president Ira Deutchman points out, why spend advertising money to get people into theaters before Christmas, when the audience is not available? Why not save it all for after Christmas dinner when the annual moviegoing pilgrimage begins?
The Sunday holiday, however, throws a bit of a monkey wrench into those plans, admits Paramount's distribution president Barry London. "From a business standpoint this is not a good Christmas in general," he says. "You have no Saturdays." (Christmas Eve is the nadir of the movie year and New Year's Eve is not much better.)
Another complication is that most of the Christmas Day releases are aimed at older audiences who often make their film-going decisions by reading reviews. Many national newspapers don't carry reviews on Sundays since entertainment sections are printed in advance. Many of those movies will be reviewed on Friday, Dec. 23, cramming as many as 10 reviews into a single issue, "which means your review may get buried," asserts London. This is an unfortunate predicament since some of the limited releases look to capitalize on potential Oscar consideration and year-end critical kudos.
Moreover, space problems in many papers will result in some reviews showing up on Saturday, Christmas Eve, or even the Monday or Tuesday after Christmas. Consequently, the Sam Goldwyn Co.'s distribution executive Eamonn Bowles decided to risk missing a couple of days of prime Christmas business and skip to Dec. 28 to debut Mira Nair's "The Perez Family."
Since many of the limited releases will do most of their business in January, Fine Line's Deutchman predicts there may still be some last-minute juggling.
For wide releases, however, it may be too late. Last week, Disney decided to skip the heat and get out of the kitchen, pulling its Dec. 25 planned release of "Roommates," starring Peter Falk, and bumping the family comedy-drama into the first quarter of the new year. The rest of the Christmas wide releases are staying put since advertising commitments have been made and there's little room for maneuvering prime-time TV slots during one of the most costly times of year.